my bf has to be right about everything
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hi mixed feelings,
My boyfriend of 3.5 years has to be right about everything…to the point of lying and gaslighting me. I know this sounds like a huge toxic relationship warning, but he’s truly so great in every other way…I want to confront the issue...but I don’t know where to even start. He is a very knowledgeable person, but sometimes he’ll say things that aren’t true… just so he’ll have an answer to my question or spit out a fact. For example, once we were on a walk and I was looking at a plant with strange leaves. He pointed to [it] and said, “I think that’s poison ivy.” Then a second later said, “Yes, I’m sure that’s poison ivy”. I Googled a picture of poison ivy and it looked nothing like the plant.
If we are arguing over something and he realizes he’s wrong, he’ll try to make it sound like I just didn’t understand what he was saying and that he is, in fact, correct. For example, we were looking at a map of the park we were in, trying to find the exit. He was holding it the wrong way and was having a difficult time locating the exit. I tried to show him that he needed to turn the map around, but he argued that it was facing the correct direction…Instead of acknowledging that he was holding it backwards or that I was right, he just said “it doesn’t matter, let’s just walk in this direction.” I teasingly pointed out that I was right…to which he responded, “I was looking for the garden, not the exit”.
I should note that I handle being wrong very differently...I embrace it and even point it out. I don’t expect him to be like me, he’s just on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Whenever he acts this way and is obviously incorrect, I tease him about it or ignore it because I just don’t know how to handle it. He only does this about 2-3 times a month, but I’ve realized that it’s affecting my trust in him. He hasn’t ever gaslit me in any other type of situation before. How should I start the conversation? And what should I say to make sure he is truly hearing me? —Gaslit-GF, she/her
There’s a well-known misattributed quote I’ve seen scattered across the Internet: You can be right or you can be happy. This is unfortunate news for people who are only happy when they are right. But here’s the thing—nobody can be right all of the time. Every now and again, you have to take an L. And that isn’t a bad thing at all when you consider that L can also mean Lesson. From what it sounds like, you’ve taken yours with grace, humility, and the curiosity to gain value from experience—honestly, an exemplary trait of the emotionally mature club. Welcome!
And as frustrating as interpersonal friction is, all behavior is valuable information. It’s most useful when you can zoom out of the immediate context and get a bit of distance from your emotionally-activated state, before making any judgments fueled by ego (very difficult to do, mind you). This right-wrong see-saw is something you’ve been dealing with for a while with your BF—three and a half years is a good chunk of time to get a sense of someone’s willingness to adapt or change. It sounds like, to me, that you’re very empathetic to your BF’s confusing behavior, even if it vexes you, and that’s great because you’re already steps ahead, having realized that other people’s behavior rarely has much to do with you. It’s not personal. But just because you’re aware of that doesn't mean his behavior doesn’t hurt you.
thankfully, it’s not about you
Often people get the most defensive when their tenderest vulnerabilities or insecurities are prodded. And when it comes to ego-related things, having one’s self-perspective of being a knowledgeable, wise, and intelligent person shaken to the core—even by something as inconsequential as not knowing directions (literally nobody knows directions anymore; it’s all Google maps)—can feel like an attack on their self-worth. There are no objective truths to the ego. And it sounds like your dude’s ego is all wrapped up in his own reality of being the “guy who knows things.”
That said, from your letter, I don’t get a sense that he’s intentionally gaslighting you so much as he is protecting his own sense of self. But to get an additional perspective, I asked licensed therapist Ellen Yom, LCSW, who explains gaslighting as “when someone is trying to question another person's reality.” She goes on to explain gaslighting through the perspective of the person who's experiencing it. “Typically the person kind of loses their sense of reality. [They] feel like their sense of reality is being invalidated and called into question, so they end up feeling insecure.”
the thing about…“healthy conflict”
When someone is being untruthful or defensive, your connection can suffer. But re-connection can sometimes only come from conflict—after all, if you’re not having conflict, you’re probably not communicating. Healthy conflict, however, is best done when everyone feels safe expressing their vulnerabilities and feelings without the threat of shame or judgment. “Couples typically get into an impasse because there's no space for there to be two different experiences of what is happening,” Yom explained. “Each partner needs to be able to express their perspective, while not impinging on the other person's perspective—[that’s] being able to say, ‘OK, these two things can exist at the same time.’”
After three and a half years, I’ll bet you’ve done as much as you possibly can to patiently manage your boyfriend’s emotions and keep conflict to a minimum. I’ve been there, and it is so frustrating. And disappointing. And sometimes it’s also a really lonely feeling. It’s not your job to manage your boyfriend’s emotions! Or anyone else’s, for that matter. This is a freeing thought as well as a scary one, because you can only be responsible for your own feelings and behaviors. One thing for you to consider is: Why is this becoming an issue now? What’s different in your life or with your relationship that this one issue has now become intolerable? Is it just the passage of time or maybe there's something in you that’s changed and is no longer willing to go along with this. Something to think about!
how to have “the talk”
As a couples therapist, Yom helps partners navigate these changes often. You may be out of ideas on how to bring this up with your BF, but Yom suggests thinking back to moments in the past when you’ve brought this issue up and how it went. Which times were successful and which led to more conflict? Past experiences can inform your new approaches. And leading with your own feelings, rather than criticism about his behavior is a helpful way to set up a discussion. After all, couple conflicts are you two against the issue, not you two against each other.
Yom suggests something along the lines of: “I'm concerned about [X]. I want to know what I can do or what you need from me, so that we don't fall into this pattern.” It’s an invitation for your BF to open up about his inner world without accusing him of being problematic. Also, gently bringing this up when you’re both in a calm, non-tense state, removed from the dilemma of who’s right or wrong would be more ideal than right in that moment.
He’s a gem of a guy, otherwise, as you said, so I’m sure he’ll be appreciative of your patience and lack of judgment. And if he stonewalls…well at least you know where the walls are. Not everyone is ready to take theirs down, even in hands as empathetic and caring as yours. But, if you’re both ready, therapy (individual and/or couples if you’re open to it) could be a helpful resource to navigate these recurring disagreements and disconnections in a non-judgmental environment.
People need to come to you on their own terms, to reveal their soft underbellies when they are ready. That’s really the only way it works. You cannot convince someone to love you the way you love. I’ve learned this many times (the hard way, oof)—which is why I want to emphasize the very important fact that you do not have to get to the bottom of his thing about being right. That’s his thing to sort out. And you? You get to decide how patient you’re willing to be. I’m not saying ignore it or don’t bring it up. Definitely speak up about things that don’t make you feel good in your relationship. But at a certain point, you’ve got to decide how much of this is a dealbreaker for you, and communicate that as well! You can’t really control how things will shake out, but you can’t support a relationship by yourself—not happily, anyway. You can only do your best to communicate your intentions with all your affection and empathy. And if the situation is making you unhappy enough, well, you too can choose your own happiness.