The Wrong Stuff

Those Three Little Words (“Honey, You’re Right”): Harville Hendrix on Being Wrong

Whatever else you want to say about it, wrongness is a capacious subject. Since this blog began, I’ve interviewed people about the relationship between error and  medicine , encyclopedias computers space travel corporate culture hedge funds , mountain climbing , storytelling , Israel , omelets education Leona Helmsley , and  the Cleveland Indians , among many other subjects. And yet, somehow, I’ve yet to broach the issue of how our thoughts and feelings about wrongness affect one of the most important maybe the most important arena of human life. I’m talking, of course, about love.

Enter Harville Hendrix . Hendrix is the author of the best-selling  Getting the Love You Want , along with the also-best-selling  Keeping the Love You Find   and many other books. With his wife and business partner, Helen LaKelly Hunt, he pioneered the concept of “conscious partnership” and developed a form of counseling he calls  Imago Relationship Therapy . Oprah Winfrey, who has hosted Hendrix on her show 17 times, refers to him as “the marriage whisperer.” I sought Hendrix out to ask him why most of us are so attached to being right and so threatened by being wrong and what we can do to rethink those attitudes about wrongness to improve our relationships with our partners, our families, and ourselves.  

Thanks for agreeing to talk to me. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the desire to be right and what a powerful effect usually a negative one it has on relationships.

It’s a question that’s very relevant to me and one I’ve thought about a lot. Every couple I see, both partners think they’re right. And as you point out, that doesn’t tend to go well. You know, there’s an old phrase, “You can either be right or be in a relationship.” Which really means you can either  insist  on being right—never mind whether you really are or not—or be in a relationship. 

Why do you think most of us are so insistent about being right?

There are two ways to think about that. One is a very natural and nonpathological analysis, which has to do with the way we are designed as human beings. I call it “concentric consciousness.” For all of us, we are at the center of our own universe, and everything else is the periphery. So it makes sense that we think that the way we see things is the way they really are. That’s natural. 

If we were talking about philosophy instead of psychology, we’d call that realism: the idea that the world is precisely as we perceive it to be. 

Exactly. There’s a philosophical theory called the correspondence theory of truth, which pretty much describes most people’s ordinary, everyday, nonreflective way of thinking about themselves and the world. Simply put, it means the belief that there is an exact correspondence between what I see and what’s really out there: “My perspective is universal and what I see is what is real.” That’s a very real part of the human experience. 

And yet anyone in the intellectual history of the culture understands that there’s no such thing as direct perceptions. That went out the window when Copernicus pointed out that the sun is at the center of the universe, not the earth. By the 15th century, philosophers understood that human perception involves interpretation, and that idea has been developed considerably by postmodern philosophers and psychologists. All we have is the capacity to interpret phenomena. We do not have access to the thing in itself, as Kant would have said. All we have is a representation of the thing, and that representation is clouded by our own subjectivity. 

Nonetheless, as you started out by saying, we often insist that we  do  have access to the thing in itself that we’re right and can know that we’re right. Something tells me that a universal dose of Philosophy 101 wouldn’t really solve the problem that the underlying issue is largely emotional. 

Some people are wounded in childhood by an intrusive or neglectful parent, and that produces emotional pain, and emotional pain produces self-absorption. And when you are wounded and become self-absorbed, your natural inclination to see yourself as the center of the world and everything else as on the periphery is amplified to the point where you cannot be flexible with data. You can’t actually take in new information very well. When you’re wounded early, you organize the world in a certain way, in order to give yourself some sense of inner cohesion. You make up your mind about the way things are, who you are, who your parents are, and although that helps you survive, it also means you have all these very rigid ideas surrounding what is fundamentally a fragile inner core. 

And the experience of being wrong about those ideas threatens that inner core?

If you’re wounded in some way, yes. You form all these perspectives, but for you, those perspectives are  not  perspectives. They’re perceptions: the world as it really is. To have those perceptions turned into perspectives, which would be the healthy thing to do—that threatens your fragile internal organization. And because you rely on the stability of those perceptions—rather than on a stable self—to feel safe in the world, the idea that those perceptions are fallible produces huge amounts of anxiety. As I see it, one of the core reasons we can’t admit to being wrong is that doing so threatens our internal cohesion and throws us into chaos. 

If you grow up in a healthy family, by contrast, you grow up with that same concentric consciousness, with the same correspondence theory of truth, but you have a solid core. You have flexibly, adaptability, you have the capacity to be curious, so when someone says, “Oh, I didn’t like that movie,” and you did, you can say, “Well, what  did  you think about it?” But if you’re wounded and defended and scared, you just think, “Well, if you don’t like that movie, that means you’re wrong or stupid, because the way I see it is the way it is.” 

I’m interested in this idea that having your perspective challenged produces anxiety. That comports with something another therapist said to me, which is that our capacity to tolerate being wrong hinges on our capacity to tolerate emotion. 

I think that’s right. To entertain the possibility that you’re wrong is to feel anxiety about your inner organization, as well as shame, embarrassment, and even guilt about the erroneous perspective. And shame and guilt are almost intolerable emotions. So in order not to experience that anxiety and shame and guilt, you become rigid in your perceptions. 

How does that rigidity play out in our relationships? 

Well, for starters, most couples do not know that the correspondence theory of truth is inaccurate. They don’t think philosophically; they operate out of the idea that their experience is what’s true. So they feel they have to diminish or devalue and sometimes even annihilate their partner’s perspectives, because to see things from that person’s point of view would mean you’d have to give up on the absolute truth of your own, and that would trigger anxiety and everything that follows from it—chaos and shame and guilt. So this adamant commitment to your own perceptions translates into destroying your partner’s perceptions. Not that people are aware that this is what they’re doing, of course; they think they’re just defending the truth.

In Western culture, we have this narrative about romance in which falling in love is about finding a previously missing part of our self our “better half,” our “soul mate.” Or, as Phil Collins put it, “two hearts living in just one mind.” I assume that part of what’s so difficult and uncomfortable about disagreement in relationships is that it constitutes a kind of implicit betrayal of that idea.

In the early stages of love, you actually do experience a kind of merger of consciousness. People who are falling in love seem to kind of fuse together for a while; you sort of surrender your own personhood. But at some point you differentiate. You say, “I am me and not you, and this is what I think and not that.” And “Actually, I don’t really enjoy that kind of movie,” or “I really like butter pecan ice cream better than vanilla, even though it was fun to eat it with you sometimes.” For the other person, it’s like: “You really think that? Did you lie to me?” But nobody lied. There’s a kind of collusion in romantic love not to breach reality. 

You know, it reminds me on a personal scale of something that happens on a political scale of well. I’m thinking of utopias how we have this dream of a perfect society characterized by unanimity and perfection but, in fact, utopias tend to either fall apart or turn disastrous fairly quickly. Whereas if you accept that differences of opinion exist instead of trying to eradicate them, you can achieve a more stable society. It sounds like the same goes for relationships that the dream of unanimity and perfection is ultimately destructive.

It is destructive because it is impossible. None of us share our partner’s perspectives in every detail, and the power struggle that happens after the romantic phase is always triggered by something showing up in the relationship—in  the person’s behavior or belief or thought or action—that you had denied or overlooked, or that the other person had withheld. That’s what produces the tension that puts people into conflict. And then you go into polarity: “I’m right.” “No, I’m right.”; “You did that.” “No, I didn’t.” “Yes, you did.” 

This process that couples go through is what I call negation of each other. They don’t really consciously know that when they say, “That’s not what you said,” or “That’s not right,” or “That’s so stupid,” that in fact they’re annihilating each other, but they are.  And they do it over and over and over again. You just get annihilation and counter-annihilation until they reach an impasse when they can’t talk anymore. And that’s what comes walking into our offices. They can’t resolve that. 

Can you break down this idea of negation and annihilation for me? What specifically happens for people emotionally when these kinds of disagreements appear in relationships? 

I think the first emotion is anxiety. When people begin to finally get it that, “Oh, he really does like butter pecan ice cream” or “He really does have that thought,” that triggers enormous anxiety. Anxiety is the motivating feeling that comes up behind all the other ones—bargaining, anger, depression, everything. 

How would you define anxiety?

Anxiety is the anticipation of danger. Fear is the experience of danger: You see a tiger in front of you, you have a fear reaction, you do whatever you need to do to protect yourself, which is usually to run or hide.  Anxiety is the fear that the catastrophic is  going to happen. If I suddenly discover that my partner has had an affair, I anticipate all kinds of catastrophic consequences: I will lose this relationship, I will lose my security, I will lose my status in the community, I will maybe lose my children. All kinds of catastrophic scenarios come to mind, depending on your own fears and also your own value system. But it’s all a forward projection. Fear is the experience of the present being dangerous. Anxiety is fear of the future. 

Got it. So once people’s anxiety is triggered by these disagreements, what happens next?

Typically the anxiety is followed by anger. Anger is an attempt to coerce a person into surrendering their reality, so that there’s only one reality in the relationship instead of two. And when the anger triggered by the anxiety doesn’t work, people experience depression.  Depression is the experience of the loss of power: “I can’t make my world happen.” 

Once they go into depression, couples—if they stay together—will then enter a bargaining stage. The bargaining goes like this: “Well, OK, I’m different and you’re different, so let’s make a deal about whose reality is going to be in the forefront.”  It’s like, “Okay, you’re a Baptist and I’m an Episcopalian, so we’ll go to a Baptist church one Sunday and an Episcopalian church the next Sunday.” They’re trying to orchestrate a kind of interchange of realities, and they often think that this is a really enlightened move and the one that should and will save their relationship. So when it doesn’t work, people go into despair. And then they come to me hoping that I will help them make better deals. But making better deals never works, because deal-making still involves giving up some part of yourself.

So what do you do with couples that have reached that point?

With my wife, Helen Hunt, I developed Imago relationship therapy , and as part of that, we have developed a process we call “dialogue.” Dialogue is a generic word, but we have a special structure for it; we call it mirroring, validating, and being empathic. And what we’ve found over the years is that, with couples, you have to hold them in the process and give them some coaching in learning to listen. People have to learn to listen and listen and listen and listen until they finally get it that their partner has their own inner world—that you like apples and your partner likes oranges and that it’s okay to like oranges. 

One of my axioms is that if you want to be in a relationship, you have to get it that you live with another person. That person isn’t you. She’s not merged with you. She’s not your picture of who she is. She doesn’t live inside your mind. She doesn’t know what you’re thinking, and you don’t know what she’s thinking. So you have to back off and move from reactivity to curiosity. You have to ask questions. You have to listen.

It sounds like you’re not just coaching people to accept their role in any given disagreement like, “OK, maybe how I react to my in-laws isn’t fair, maybe my partner has a point.” You’re asking them to accept disagreement in general, without automatically interpreting it as rejection or creating friction around it. That’s a pretty tall order. Not to put too fine a point on it, but: Does it work?

We find that over time, if they’re in a safe and regular environment, most couples can begin to tolerate difference instead of seeing it as bad. That’s when we see them moving toward health. And then when they stay in that process and discover that nothing catastrophic occurs when you accept that what your partner says is true  for them , the anxiety relaxes. That’s when you know you’re getting to more solid ground:  when people move to, “Well, tell me more about that, I’m really curious: What is it like for you to think that or feel that or do that? What’s going on when you’re late and don’t call?” Curiosity then becomes a bonding experience, and that can then lead to excitement and to wonder: “Gee whiz, I have two worlds: I have my world and your world, and both of them are right, and we no longer have to be in a power struggle about it. We can be in mutual acceptance.”

I will say, though, that I’ve never found anyone willing to surrender their perceptions until they’re in a safe environment—unless they are absolutely forced to do so because reality crashes in on them in some dramatic way: because they learn that their husband or wife has an affair or has embezzled a bunch of money or what have you. 

Let’s talk about those kinds of situations, because they’re some of the most dramatic experiences of wrongness most of us will ever experience. Not many of us will ever be involved in, say, a wrongful conviction, but a whole lot of us get cheated on or get betrayed or just generally invest our trust in an untrustworthy person and suffer the consequences. In your experience, how do people respond to this kind of dramatic collapse of an emotional belief?

The first thing that happens is shock, of course—enormous shock that an unwanted reality is in fact true. In a catastrophe like divorce, it’s particularly shocking because that’s the one thing that seems to rupture what we would call the attachment impulse the most. Attachment is so necessary and central to our sense of trust and safety in relationships, so when that attachment bond is ruptured, it’s hugely anxiety-provoking. People do all kinds of crazy things in order to protect themselves from the pain of the rupture. 

If the catastrophic discovery is something like, your partner has three kids in another city, you can’t make that reality go away, so you go into depression. But again, I think the operative word here is anxiety. Unpredicted realities produce enormous amounts of anxiety for most people. What you do with that anxiety depends on your mental health and your level of maturity. If you’re mature, you may find it a problem to be solved rather than a catastrophe. But it takes very healthy people to do that, and we don’t have a whole lot of those people on the planet yet.  

Speaking of all the other people on the planet, if you could hear any one of them interviewed about being wrong, who would it be?

George W. Bush.

Kathryn Schulz  is the author of  Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error . She can be reached at . You can follow her on Facebook  here , and on Twitter  here .

This blog features Q&As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong. You can read past interviews with Google research director  Peter Norvig , Wikipedia co-founder  Larry Sanger , NASA astronaut-turned-medical-error-guru  James Bagian , hedge-fund manager  Victor Niederhoffer , mountaineer  Ed Viesturs This American Life  host  Ira Glass , celebrity chef  Anthony Bourdain Sports Illustrated  senior writer  Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist  Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit  Alan Dershowitz .