Part two of the Therapist’s Pet Phrases articles…things clients hear us say sometimes, and what we really mean.
“You can be right, or you can be together. It’s up to you.”
I’m guilty of using this one. Not often, and certainly not while working with couples who are struggling over issues like abuse, addiction, infidelity, or that level of severity. Sometimes there is a right and wrong, and this blog doesn’t apply to times when there is a behavior that is a clear and present danger to the relationship and its partners.
This phrase more often comes up in therapy when a couple is at an impasse over their individual habits, behaviors, or quirks. “He spends too much time watching football.” “We can’t agree on where to live.” “She leaves wet towels on the floor.” These may sound fairly benign to you, even trivial. “So what?” Tell that to a couple who have been battling over an issue like which set of in-laws to spend the holidays with, to the point where annoyance has escalated to overt anger.
Underlying these types of battles is generally a deeper issue, such as a struggle for control or a lack of feeling attached. Those issues are worked on in therapy, peeling back surface problems to get to the deeper core. When daily battles become a hindrance to working things through, it may be time to ask the couple to put down their “weapons” (angry words, rolling eyes, stonewalling) to be able to face the challenges as a team. This is not always an easy task. “But he….!” “If I try, then she always….!” back and forth we go, in the familiar dance of he won’t/she always/etc. that couples in distress engage in.
Change becomes possible by recognizing that wet towels are not only not the real issue. Holding them as evidence that your partner doesn’t care, can’t change, and that “if he would only pick up those ^%$& towels, we’d be okay” is your biggest boundary to lasting, healthy change. How badly do you want to be right? How important is it that your partner admits to being wrong? Perhaps what matters even more is that your relationship is valuable to each of you, that you want to stay together, and that finding happiness together is far more important than how much time one of you spends watching sports. Coming from a place of love and commitment, you will find that those surface issues become more tolerable. Your perspective broadens, showing you the bigger picture of your life together. Is it about wet towels….really? Chances are it is about demonstrating courtesy, commitment, and attachment to one another.
As cliche as it can sound, the fact is when it comes to matters like putting the toothpaste cap back on or not, you can be right or you can be aligned with your partner. You are different people. You make different choices and have different habits. You were raised in different homes with different rules. Now that you have your own home together, you can combine your own preferred ways of life with one another, each giving and each taking, and develop a working compromise.
It’s not about being right, although in the heat of the moment it can certainly feel that way. It’s about being together, and finding ways to do so that allow you each your individuality but that show respect and willingness to adjust to one another.