THE BLOG
07/10/2014 01:18 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2014

When Being Wrong Is Right

Charlie: When it comes to relationships, it's very possible that the 10 most powerful words you'll ever hear are: "You can be right, or you can have a relationship." And the most powerful word of those 10 is "or." I first heard this phrase about 25 years ago when a friend from whom I'd been trying to gain some sympathy instead gave me something far more valuable: the realization that being right and having good relationships are mutually exclusive and do not go together. You can have either one or the other; you just can't have both. I wanted to have it both ways, and when things didn't work out that way, which was more often than not, I would generally feel resentful, unappreciated and misunderstood. The idea that my needing to be right was actually at least as big a part of the problem as the "crimes" I had judged Linda to be guilty of had been inconceivable to me prior to the awakening that was provoked by my friend's simple words.

Although it would be a slight exaggeration to claim that my marriage was totally or permanently transformed at that moment, it is true that from that point on it became increasingly more difficult for me not to notice those times when I would begin to slide down the slippery slope of self-righteousness, inevitably provoking a response from Linda that reminded me that we were in the soup again.

Accepting the reality that it's not "and" but "or" helped me to remember to choose one or the other and that the "right" choice will always be the one that supports my highest priority or primary intention. When I experience the richness of a loving connection, not being right seems like a small price to pay for all the benefits that connection provides.

Linda: The other day my friend Amy shared a great "being right" story with me that actually was life changing. Early in her marriage, Amy and her husband Phillip traveled to England to visit his side of the family. Phillip's mom planned a big dinner party roasting chickens, inviting aunts, uncles and cousins, and a celebration in honor of the couple. On the day before the festivities, Phillip's brother offered to take care of their 2-year-old daughter so that Amy and Phillip could spend a romantic evening alone together. When Amy's mother-in-law Diane heard that they had gone out to dinner without inviting her to join them, she became enraged. While Diane could be difficult, her response was over the top and extreme, even for her. She ranted and raved over the telephone, calling Amy selfish and inconsiderate for not inviting her to join them. She concluded her tirade by announcing that she had cancelled the celebration in their honor and thrown all the food out in the garbage.

Amy was devastated and shocked by the whole episode. She felt misunderstood, hurt, and violated by the attack. Part of her wanted to tell her mother in law to "shove it" and get on the next plane to the U.S., and another part felt saddened and deeply disappointed in her lost opportunity to create a favorable impression and strong connection with Phillip's family. She was caught between two powerful impulses.

Phillip was supportive and told Amy, "I don't think you did anything wrong. It's my mother that is way out of line here. I wouldn't blame you if you never wanted anything to do with her again. If that's your choice, I support it." Amy was so relieved to feel understood and validated by her husband that she calmed down and began to think the situation through. A short time later, she came back to Phillip and said, "You only have one mother. It's not acceptable for me to separate myself from her. It's just not right."

Then she called her mother-in-law and apologized to her, saying, "It was inconsiderate of me to go out to dinner with Phillip and not invite you to come along. We don't see you often enough and I want to spend time with you when we come to visit. I hope you can forgive me and come to dinner with us tonight." Diane accepted her apology, and they repaired their damaged relationship.

It wasn't long after this incident that Diane came down with a mysterious illness. She was not properly diagnosed at first, but later it was determined that she had AIDS.

In the early stages of her illness, Phillip and Amy learned that one complication of AIDS can be dementia, and that the incident in England had been the first in a series of irrational outbursts resulting from the illness's impact on her brain functioning. Shortly after the diagnosis, Diane moved in with Amy and Phillip, and Amy became her primary caregiver up until the time of her death.

Caring for her mother-in-law proved to be one of the most fulfilling experiences of Amy's life, and of Diane's as well. These two women who both shared a deep love for the same man created a depth of connection with each other that neither of them could have ever previously imagined possible.

Even though Amy was young at the time, she was wise and generous of spirit. In taking responsibility for the breakdown she set her mother-in-law's mind and heart at ease. Amy didn't simply stuff her hurt and anger, but she really let it go so that she could be genuinely warm with her mother-in-law. It made me wonder how I would have handled a similar situation.

We are all frequently challenged to become bigger than who we imagine ourselves to be: more generous, more forgiving, more responsible, more understanding, and more compassionate. When people hurt or frighten us and the differences between us erupt in anger, we have an opportunity to practice and strengthen these qualities. In connecting to our higher nature and then being courageous enough to reach out to connect to the vulnerability in another person, we can open to the possibility to grow and be healed. Life provides us with many opportunities to practice this skill, more than we probably want to have. But the practice of moving from the point of conflict to the point of connection allows us to discover and share our most magnificent self. In terms of the payoffs, being right loses every time.