One of the most common reasons couples fight is because people in relationships often spend a lot of time and energy trying to explain why they are right. After a disagreement, the “who-was-right-and-who-was-wrong” aftermath can persist for much longer than the argument itself, and can easily become an argument about the argument. In this way, conflicts have a tendency to snowball until we can hardly remember how they started.
Is this Normal?
Fights about polarizing issues of right and wrong are common couples’ fights, and it is a common topic in couples’ therapy. In a desperate attempt to convince herself or her partner of her rightness, many people will also attempt to draw in some other third party (or many other parties) such as a friend, family member, or co-worker to get his or her opinion on who is right and who is wrong. Most of the time these attempts do not help resolve the issue and, even worse, exacerbate it.
Thankfully, there are ways out of this cycle. In fact, research shows that couples mostly argue about topics that aren’t actually matters of right and wrong, even though they are perceived that way.
So Who is Right and Who is Wrong? Yes.
Couples tend to argue about things that are a legitimate question of preference. For example, partners often argue about whether it’s better to save money for the future or to spend it in the present. One partner may think it is ridiculous to save so much of one’s income for retirement days, especially since she can’t predict the future and doesn’t know if she will ever be able to enjoy it. The other partner feels that spending money in the here-and-now is irresponsible, and has always looked forward to enjoying the fruits of labor later in life. Who is right? You may side with one partner’s view or the other, but neither side is completely right or wrong. This is a genuine matter of preference.
But My Partner’s Preferences are Ridiculous!
When partners argue over topics like this, each partner may feel like the other person’s approach is absolutely irrational, crazy, preposterous…(well, you get the point.) Our individual preferences are deeply ingrained in us and are often inflexible. This can make it very difficult to see that our partner’s way of doing things actually works for her. In many cases, she has been doing things “the wrong way” long before you came into her life.
How to Resolve a Fight
With a lot of practice, partners can improve at distinguishing when an argument is truly a matter of right and wrong, and when it’s really about different ways of living. Once partners develop respect for and sensitivity to one another’s discrepant lifestyle preferences, this foundation can help prevent future arguments from escalating into the right-wrong oblivion. At this point, partners can practice more sensible conversations about what a compromise looks like.
The next time you and your partner are headed for a clash, take a moment to consider whether this is really a matter of right and wrong or one of preference. If you can work to see both your own AND your partner’s perspective, you’ll be on your way to a more peaceful partnership.
Atkinson, B.J. (2005). Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy: Advances from Neurobiology and the Science of Intimate Relationships. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
Erica Garceau, M.S., LMFT is the Outreach Coordinator and a Staff Therapist for IntraSpectrum Counseling, a group private practice in Chicago that specializes in the LGBTQI community. She specializes in couples and family therapy. Follow IntraSpectrum Counseling on Twitter and Facebook.