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The Number 1 Relationship Killer

couples fighting photo When there’s a problem in a relationship, couples try to talk about it. If they can talk about in a way that resolves the problem, all is well. If they can’t talk about it in a way that resolves the problem, all is not well.

When they can’t talk about the problem successfully, it is usually because of one thing. They are trying to win. Wanting to win causes them to argue about the problem rather than discussing it in a calm and objective manner. They have a need to be right. The need to win is the one thing that is most likely to destroy a relationship.

“It’s you,” one partner will say to the other. “You are the cause of the problem. You just can’t see it.”

“No, it’s you,” the other partner will respond. “You’re wrong and you don’t want to admit it. All my friends agree with me.”

The need to win (the need to be right) is an aspect of narcissism. Narcissism is an outgrowth of insecurity. The more insecure we are, the more we need to compensate for that insecurity. We compensate by erecting a defensive shell. That defensive shell wants to protect us from being wrong, because being wrong would mean, in our unconscious mind, we are a total failure as a human being. Being right means we are successful; we are a human being who knows what is right and what is wrong.

Invariably when couples come to me for therapy, this is the underlying problem. It is an easy problem to detect. As soon as I hear them arguing in my office it becomes apparent. You might think that all I would need to do to help them solve the problem is to tell them that they are trying to win and this is the main obstacle to their having a successful relationship. But it is not that easy. They may respond, “Yes, you’re right, I’m trying to win,” but a week later they are arguing the same way. They are still trying to win. It is deeply ingrained in their character.

Nor is this just a problem with couples. It seems to be a problem that plagues all of humanity with its history of wars between countries that attempt to prove they are right and the other country is wrong.

In order to reach a resolution of any problem, couples have to give up the need to be right. In order to give up that need, they must understand the psychological underpinnings of that need. They must understand that the need to be right comes from an unhealthy place that causes them to be rigid in their thinking and blocked in their emotions. To one degree or another, they hold on to this need as if their very lives depended on it. If the narcissistic shell of self-righteousness is cracked (that is, if they find out they are wrong about anything at all), they feel as if they will be devastated.

Arguing to win never truly resolves things. Someone will appear to win, and someone will appear to lose. The winner will feel good. The loser will feel bad. The loser will make promises that won’t be kept. There will be a temporary truce. But before long the arguments will arise again.

If you can overcome the need to win, you will get to a completely different place than you have ever been. You’ll know when you get there, because you’ll have a completely different attitude about your relationship and a completely different goal. Your goal now is not to win. Your goal is to find the solution, no matter what it is. You are like a scientist whose only concern is to find the right answer, no matter what it is and no matter who is right and who is wrong. Even if your original theory proves to be wrong, you are ready to accept the solution, because the solution will resolve the conflict and bring closeness. That is your ultimate aim now, to build closeness, trust, love and mutual respect.

You have now reached the land of inner security. You no longer need to erect a narcissistic shell of self-righteousness. You are right because you don’t need to be right. You are right because the correct answer is to accept and respect differences and seek a middle ground that will lead to what both of you want. You are no longer attached to a need that is ultimately unhealthy, a need that requires a shell of unreality and a delusion that you have to win at all costs. These lead only to false contentment.

The first time you reach this new land, you may only be able to visit for a short time. It won’t take long for the other, more deeply ingrained part of you to return to claim its self-righteousness. That part of you feels it’s a weakness to give up being right. You will need to develop a rational ego that monitors yourself. The rational ego will tell you when you have ducked back into the shell and become inaccessible to reason.

The more you practice the better you will get. Soon you will become more comfortable with not being right, and will understand that not needing to be right is a strength, not a weakness. Strength is flexibility, weakness is rigid and brittle.

In the state of peace and harmony there is no winner or loser. There is only us. We are the winners.

The Number 1 Relationship Killer

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2016). The Number 1 Relationship Killer. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 18, 2019, from


Last updated: 17 Apr 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 17 Apr 2016
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