It’s no secret that I failed at relationships with men for years. I was a serial monogamist, with a string of intense, volatile relationships behind me, all between two and four years in length. Again and again the men I’d been with would rebound after our breakups, with sweet, softspoken women they usually referred to as “just really, really nice,”…so often that I was forced to realize that I…wasn’t. Nice. At all. Why else would these guys instantly go off in search of someone who was?
Among the not-nice traits I foolishly valued highly in myself was a bloodthirsty need to win. There are lots of reasons for this. I was raised to fight, for one. Fighting was valued in our home. Honorable people picked fights, and won them. I wanted to win arguments, fights, debates, everything. At any cost.
As an aside, I will say that the drive to win at all costs was helpful in my education and career (making me a competitive and tirelessly hard worker). But it was deadly to romantic love and relationships, because no one ever wins anything in a relationship by failing to admit fault, mistakes or failing to admit when someone else is right. I sabotaged my relationships with this need to win; even if I knew my partner was right, it was just too terrifying for me and made me too vulnerable to admit it. I was raised not to back down, and for too many years the simple act of letting someone else be right was something I found threatening.
Enter the cowboy. He’s brilliant. I think I’ve mentioned that once or twice. It is likely he’s the smartest man I’ve ever been in a relationship with, and this naturally means that sometimes, when we have a debate about something, he’s right and I’m wrong. At first, this unnerved me. I’d rattle off my argument, whatever it was, and sit back with a smirk, certain, as only an ivy-league-educated journalist can be, that I was the cleverest person in the room (if not the world). The cowboy would match this with a smirk of his own, and he’d counter with his own well-reasoned rebuttal and it would just floor me. At first my jaw just sort of hung slack. I might have even hyperventilated. I probably got red-faced and defensive a few times. Unlike the other men I’d been involved with, however, the cowboy let me know he was not going to cave to me just to shut me up or make me happy; he was going to stick to his guns, and I was either going to respect him or I was going to go home. I didn’t have to agree with him, but I wasn’t going to win.
This is when I began realized something liberating: It was okay to recognize when I was wrong about something, and it was okay to let the cowboy know he was right. I wouldn’t die, or disappear, if someone else go to star in the show of our debate. It wasn’t the end of the world. I might, I realized, even learn something now and then if I learned to actually listen instead of just waiting to talk again.
At first, it was hard to admit I was wrong. I didn’t have much practice at it. But the more I did it — and being with a strong, bright man gives you plenty of opportunity to be wrong about stuff — the easier it became, and the more empowering. I know it is counterintuitive to think that admitting error can be a form of empowerment, but I firmly believe it is, especially for people like me, who are naturally prone to arrogance and combativeness. This is a big part of the “submission” I discuss in my memoir — learning to allow myself to be wrong, to “lose,” to be weak, to not have to be right all the time. Man, did it feel good to learn to do that!
Healthy submission in a relationship involves knowing how to listen to your partner without getting defensive, knowing how to analyze your point of view and figure out if it holds up with new information, and knowing how, when needed, to change your mind, or at least admit, calmly and lovingly, to agree to disagree.
I know I’m a little late to this party, but I’m super happy to have finally realized that romantic relationships aren’t about being right all the time, or about “winning” fights.
Winning, in relationships, happens when both people come away from their interactions feeling heard, respected, understood and validated.
It should be noted that this process goes both ways. I was delighted recently when, during one of our discussions, the cowboy backed off a strongly held position after listening to my point of view, and admitted that I had made a valid argument. “You’re right,” he told me. And can I just tell you something? That “win” felt better than all the others that had ever come before it, because I knew it was sincere, and came from a place of deep respect that flowed both ways between us.