Tim Hoffman 

M.A. Mental Health Counselling

Psychotherapy in Hong Kong

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“You’re Right!” Couples, Conflict and Counselling

May 19, 2018

(3 minute read)

 

There’s an old joke about a couples counsellor who listens to the wife’s tale of woe and her complaints against her husband.  The counsellor considers for a moment and pronounces “You’re right.”  The husband protests, and tells his side of the story, whereupon the counsellor declares “You’re right.”  The couple erupts:  “How can we both be right?”  The counsellor looks at them, smiles and says “YOU’RE right!”

 

How can they both be right?  Think back to any fight you’ve had with a romantic partner, and you can no doubt muster a range of reasons why what they did or said was wrong.  And very likely, in the course of that fight, you raised those reasons, and your partner countered with various reasons why you were wrong and they were right.  You may well have felt that your partner was taking minor infractions on your part (which, anyway, were in response to things that your partner had done in the first place) and blowing them out of proportion.  So you ended just where you started: convinced that you were right, and your partner feeling the opposite.

 

And again, you’re both right.

 

The search for right and wrong is based on the belief that there is one truth, one version of the circumstances that is What Happened In The Fight.  But the fact is that fights between two people are experienced in two places — inside the heads of the two participants.  What seems like a single fight is actually two very different events.

 

To see why that’s significant, let’s look closely at what happens in a very simple, run of the mill fight:

 

Brenda and Mark are planning a vacation.  Mark has selected several possible hotels and shows them to Brenda, who’s had a long day at work and is feeling a bit rushed.  She sees that none of the hotels have a swimming pool and says “These aren’t right, you know I like swimming on my vacations.”  Mark has spent a lot of time looking up hotels and feels unappreciated, particularly since Brenda hadn’t made her desire for a swimming pool an essential requirement.  He’s done the lion’s share of the work in planning, so he says “This would all be a lot easier if you would tell me what you want ahead of time instead of criticizing me.”  This irritates Brenda: she feels that Mark should know how much pressure she’s under at work, and that if he really appreciated her, he’d happily pitch in more on the vacation planning side.  She replies sharply, he gives as good as he gets, and the two of them are off to the races.

 

So who’s right here?  Mark for selecting the wrong hotels?  Brenda for replying a bit abruptly?  It’s not difficult to see that neither of them have done anything terribly wrong.  If they could communicate a bit better, things wouldn’t escalate so quickly.  

 

But what if the situation was a bit different?  If, instead of “These aren’t right, you know I like swimming on my vacation” Brenda had said “You’re so inconsiderate.  What’s the matter with you?  You know I want a swimming pool!”  Surely, you’d say, Brenda started this fight by completely over-reacting.  But what if I told you that Mark usually ignores her requests?  And that Brenda grew up in a household where her parents never took her needs into consideration?  And that when Mark showed her hotels without swimming pools she felt that he was acting just like her parents, who, she unconsciously suspects, never really loved her?  And that this incident triggered unthinking panic, a feeling that no one ever had, or ever would love her?  And that her fear was so intolerable that she got angry instead and so she lashed out at the latest person who should have but didn’t love her enough?

 

Who’s right now?  An outsider not privy to their thinking and feeling would likely blame Brenda for being so nasty to her partner, and pronounce Mark the aggrieved party.  But given her history and experience, is it any surprise that she acted that way?  Perhaps you then might be inclined to blame Mark for usually ignoring her requests.  However, he has his own reasons for doing so, namely, that Brenda (given her fear of being ignored) presents her requests as non-negotiable demands, and Mark unconsciously retaliates by passive-aggressively ‘forgetting’.  

 

And so, there is no one ‘reality’ of what happened.  Mark experienced the interaction though his history, his needs and his experiences, while Brenda experienced it though the lens of her own life.  Viewed from his vantage point, she is aggressive, demanding and over-reacted to a small thing.  From Brenda’s point of view, Mark is thoughtless and uncaring, disappointing her in the same way her parents did.

 

The search for right and wrong consumes many couples, and it is ultimately fruitless, for both sides are right.  One of the things that happens in couples counselling is that each side feels heard and respected.  Each partner hears the counsellor say “You’re right!” Each partner has the chance to explain themselves to the other, and to be really heard. And in many cases, that sense of being heard, having their grievance validated, is enough for people to stop trying to prove they’re right, to hear the reality of their partner’s experience, and to change.

 

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