Dear Carolyn: My boyfriend of two and a half years loves to push my buttons. We are both incredibly stubborn, hate to be wrong/love to be right. About once a week, a normal disagreement (e.g., a wrong turn) will cause major heart- and headache. He says these things that really get under my skin – and in my anger I call him every name in the book. When he doesn’t seem fazed by it, I escalate it by saying I don’t know why someone who loves me would try to say such hurtful things and I don’t know why I would sign up for this for the rest of my life (marriage).
This does really bother him, because he honestly would like to get married and is ready when I am. These arguments annoy the $!$& out of me, and I just don’t know how to move past this. We don’t even have great makeup sex because I’m so mad I withdraw! I try to ignore his rude little comments (OK, yes, maybe we both just had a stressful day and a wrong turn doesn’t help matters … ), but he won’t stop and I just end up steaming and exploding later.
If it is this bad now, I shudder to think where two and a half kids and a mortgage will leave us.
A: Much shuddering just transpired. (We’re shuddering with you, not at.)
There’s obviously no place for nastiness (button-pushing, name-calling) in relationships. Less obviously, there’s no place for stubbornness. Everyone loves to be right, and no one loves to be wrong; you are not even remotely special in your preferences there. What distinguishes you from others who aren’t “stubborn” is that you behave as if there’s a cost to admitting error that you’re not willing to pay.
Whether this stems from your relationship or from immaturity, I can’t say; certainly both are common, and often overlap.
Some signs that it’s your relationship: You’re not this way with others; in the beginning, you weren’t this way with him; you feel mounting frustration at not being heard, understood or respected.
Some signs that it’s you: This is business as usual for you, and it feels like a problem only when you run across someone as argumentative as you are.
Either way, I suggest individual counseling to help both of you learn more productive ways to communicate when you’re upset.
In an intimate relationship, there are steep costs to an unwillingness to admit you’re wrong: It damages your credibility, because everyone’s wrong sometimes, usually often; it diminishes your partner, since you’re more invested in your victory than his truth; it’s defensive, which will keep you from ever being truly close; it paralyzes problem-solving.
And: It’s a kind of willful ignorance, since you deny yourself a clear view of how your partner deals with your vulnerability. Someone who punishes you for humbly and readily admitting fault is unkind at best, and oh boy do you want that information before you get any more deeply entwined.
The exception to the stubbornness-has-no-place rule: When you’ve fully considered alternate viewpoints; when you’re confident in your beliefs; when you accept you may still be wrong; when you’re not trying to bring someone around to your way of thinking, and instead merely defending your right to live by your own beliefs – then stubbornness is the kind of virtue that can keep you from becoming anyone’s emotional or ideological prey.
Exception to the exception: If you’re fighting once a week over your soul, then it’s time to declare incompatibility and part ways. Keep the counseling appointment, though; there’s no excuse for calling anyone “every name in the book,” no matter how justifiably angry you are.