“Jack, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. If this were a court of law, I would side with you every time. But life isn’t a court of law. And from what I see, your need to be right is killing your partner’s spirit. So it really doesn’t matter how right you are because it’s not serving the best interest of your relationship.”
I remember hearing those words during a therapy session some time ago. When I first heard this, I was ambivalent. Half of me thought: “But I’m entitled to justice! People have to follow me if I’m on the right side of things!” Though the other (more convincing) half thought: "What good is being right when you're alone?"
My Dad was never one to give me marriage advice, but I remember him telling me once “Son, in marriage you can choose to be happy or you can choose to be right. But you can’t choose both.” As a young kid, I scoffed at such a notion. “I’ll show him…” I thought to myself. I’m such a typical millennial, thinking I can have it all.
If you asked my friends and family to describe me, they’ll probably say something like, “Jack is goofy” or “Jack is a passionate guy.” They’ll also definitely say “Jack is opinionated, argumentative, and has to be right about everything.” And they’re exactly correct. My whole life I’ve been the loudest schmuck in any room. I loved getting into fierce debates with people and trying to show off my rhetorical dexterity. Even if I knew I was wrong, I just loved the challenge of arguing for a side and winning.
Winning was everything to me. I remember getting so upset as a kid whenever I couldn’t win games I played with my siblings. In middle school, I was a star wrestler and football player who was notorious for inflicting pain on those who I set out to physically dominate. In the classroom, I was never the smartest, but I was always the most passionate. I would out-grind you almost every time.
You’d think the next part of this story should be me going on to receive a sports scholarship, or going to law school, or something positive, right? No. None of that happened.
What did happen was a long line of failed relationships.
My relationships failed for a variety of reasons, but the main reason was my addiction to being right. I don’t like using that word lightly, but that’s exactly what I have. An addiction. When you argue and win, your brain floods with different hormones such as adrenaline and dopamine, which make you feel pleasure, dominance, even invincibility. It’s a feeling that has made me a fighter in all areas of my life. Whether it be on the wrestling mat or at the dinner table, I would win, you would lose. Thanks for playing.
I feel like it’s important to add that in moderation and in the appropriate context, being right or dominant isn’t a terrible thing. We depend on our lawyers, politicians, and professional athletes to really lean into this mentality. But in marriage or any serious relationship (romantic or otherwise), it can make things really toxic. Again, so many of my relationships turned into such a dumpster fire because of this problem I had.
I remember my first big fight with Annie. What it was about isn’t even worth mentioning, it was so trivial. Yet I argued with her like my life depended on it. Based on my other relationships, I was expecting us to go back and forth. I was ready to do battle and come out on top. I made the first move by passionately (a nice word for raising my voice) telling Annie why she was wrong, with the expectation that she would give it right back. And if she did, I’d be ready.
Only she didn’t. She just started crying. Annie is one of the happiest people that I’ve ever met. She exudes an air of joy and positivity basically always. And I’m the guy who made her cry. Worst of all, in mid-cry she yells back at me “I feel like I’m your punching bag!”
Dear Jack: meet your lowest moment.
That night rocked me in ways words will never fully express. The next day, I met with my therapist and I told her everything that happened. She helped me to realize what I had been doing for nearly all of my life. Not only was I straining my relationships and quite frankly acting violent (yes, emotional violence is a real thing), but I wasn’t really getting what I wanted from my self-righteous encounters.
What did I really want from being right? That’s a good question. I suppose I wanted to feel understood, validated, intelligent, and ultimately, accepted. In a way, I’ve been trying to prove my worth through arguing this whole time. Being right gave me a feeling that masked my insecurity and self-loathing. It was the novocaine for all of the pain I was suppressing from feeling less than. It’s like the classic saying, “Hurt people hurt people.”
After this realization, I set out to unlearn my arguing ways. At first, I tried just refraining from confrontation but that didn’t work. Either I’d be baited into arguing or I’d come off as non-confrontational, which is its own problem. Here are four methods that really worked for me:
1. I learned to really love myself.
Growing up as a poor, minority in an all-white environment didn’t do me a lot of favors. Assimilation was not easy for me and often felt like I was always working harder for people to love me. Even worse, loving myself seemed contingent upon whether others did. It’s taken a while for me to really love myself in a way that is independent of what other people think, but meditating on what I love about myself has helped me. Truthfully, that work may never be finished. But what I’ve noticed is that I’ve found more peace with myself, and thus peace with others.
2. I respect feelings more than facts.
Usually when you respect facts more than feelings, the world becomes a very rigid place. Everything is black and white, right or wrong, good or bad, Red Sox or Yankees (just kidding). But feelings allow for us to better acknowledge the gray areas of life and make space for multiple perspectives. Unless you’re a Klingon, most people enter into any discussion with feelings being part of it. Even if you have all of the facts, people aren’t prepared to receive them unless you appease their feelings first. Like the old saying goes, “People don’t care what you know until that know that you care.”
3. I try to withhold judgment and speak to my own experience.
As satisfying as it can be sometimes to tell someone that they’re “wrong,” “stupid,” or [insert ad hominem], it is the quickest way to drive a wedge between you and the other person. And quite frankly, it’s unnecessary. People’s beliefs and what they bring to any space comes from their life experience and can be very personal to them. Instead of disagreeing or asserting dominance, I try to just say “that’s interesting, I personally see it this way” or “I’m curious about your perspective, I’ve always thought [insert idea].” Instead of it being a game to be won, it becomes a time where everyone can learn and have fun.
4. I exercise empathy.
A mentor once told me that whenever you engage in a discussion with anyone, try it like you’re both attempting to determine what a bus looks like from either side of a street. You’re going to see one side of the bus that the other person can’t see and vice versa. So your options are either a) ask the person across the street what the other side looks like; or b) cross the street and see for yourself. The same goes for a debate. When we insist that we’re right and the other person is wrong, we’re more than likely just not taking the time to see what on the other side of the bus. Make a conscious effort to speak less and listen more. The more you learn about another person’s perspective, the more likely you are to feel empathy. And when you do that for others, they’ll want to do it for you.
So that’s where I am. Not only has it helped me to be a better spouse, but I’m a better friend, brother, and citizen of the world. Don’t get me wrong, this is all hard work. I have my bad days and I don’t always practice what I preach. When I inevitably fall off the wagon, I forgive myself and get back up to try again. That’s all anyone can do.
We live in a society where civility is a relic in a time gone by.
Twitter is at it’s ugliest, relationships are deteriorating, and worst of all, intellectual discourse and learning are stifled because we value being right over being human. Wherever you are and whoever you’re with, the world depends on you to be human. It doesn’t depend on you to be right. If we can work together to eradicate this addiction to being right, our marriages will flourish, best ideas will come to the table, the political climate will shift, and we can live in the greatest generation humanity have ever seen.
Or things can stay the same. The choice is yours.
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Annie & Jack
Love. Marriage. Teamwork. Art. Offsetting the patriarchal footprint. These are some of the things we're thinking about.