You know the type: the person who just can’t walk away from an argument unless they’ve had the last word, proving once and for all that they’re right and you’re wrong. When you’re in a relationship with someone like that, it can make any dispute needlessly long, frustrating and unproductive.
“Partners who seek to win against their mate may end up ‘winning’ the battle and losing the war by destroying their relationship connection,” said Kurt Smith, a therapist in Roseville, California, who specializes in counseling men. “Conversations and arguments shouldn’t be a competition.”
We asked relationship experts to explain why some partners fall into this bad habit and how to deal if it’s hurting your relationship.
What It Means When Someone Has To Have The Last Word
It may be helpful to first understand why some people are hellbent on having the last word and what it might say about them. Here are a few common explanations, according to our experts:
They may not feel heard.
When one partner doesn’t feel understood during an argument, they may try to establish themselves as “the winner” to feel better, said New York City therapist Juan Olmedo. “If one person tends to exhibit this trait more often, I would want to understand where that comes from: Were they raised in a family dynamic that put more emphasis on being right than feeling understood? Was this a dynamic they observed in their parents growing up?”
They may have trouble listening and acknowledging other viewpoints.
An obsession with having the last word probably also means your partner struggles to hear and validate your perspective, especially when tensions are running high. “They see validation as either agreement or capitulation,” Olmedo said.
They could have self-esteem issues.
“A pattern of needing to get in the last word can be driven by the need to feel better about yourself by being ‘right,’” Smith said. “It can also be a characteristic of narcissism, although this attribute alone doesn’t make someone a narcissist.”
How To Deal
If you feel annoyed or even hurt by your partner’s inability to let an argument go without having the last word, that’s understandable.
“This communication pattern can make a partner feel disrespected, insignificant, irrelevant, powerless and even stupid,” Smith said.
Though many people have a tendency to act this way once in a while — particularly with issues they’re passionate about — a persistent pattern of this behavior could be one form of emotional abuse, Smith said, especially when coupled with other signs.
“The impact on the partner can result in a loss of confidence in themselves,” Smith said.
Here’s what you can do to improve the situation:
Suggest taking a short break mid-argument until things have cooled down.
“Taking a timeout will help you reintegrate your brain, slow down your breathing and utilize your full cognitive potential,” said Lindsay Leopold, a somatic coach at Wellspace SF in San Francisco. “From this more centered place, you can return to the conversation ready to listen and problem solve with clarity and integrity.”
If the argument is over but your partner keeps trying to reel you back in, try not to take the bait.
Otherwise you’ll get trapped in what Washington, D.C., therapist Elisabeth LaMotte calls “an endless loop of animosity.”
“The interesting twist is that if you continue to take the emotional high road and let go of the desire to win each argument, you are likely to experience less anxiety and your partner is likely to chill out a bit and become less of a last-word-grabber,” said LaMotte, founder of DC Counseling and Psychotherapy Center.
When things are calm between the two of you, sit down with your partner to explain how their behavior makes you feel.
And state what changes you’d like to see from them.
“If they deny doing this or it turns into a debate over the facts, then end the discussion and just leave them to consider what you’ve said and asked,” Smith said.
Make sure you’re on the same page about your overall communication goals.
Remind your partner that arguing isn’t about “winning” or getting the last word — it’s about both of you expressing yourselves and feeling heard and understood when you do.
“The point isn’t to always agree but for each one to see validity in the other’s communication,” Olmedo said. “One way I sometimes have couples practice this with each other is finding a point where they can express to their partner, ‘That makes sense why you feel that way.’”
Consider seeing a therapist.
A couples therapist can act as an unbiased third party who may be able to get through to your partner without triggering defensiveness and help you learn to fight fairly and effectively.
“They can convey this feedback in a way that can be heard much better than when coming from a partner,” Smith said. “While they almost never acknowledge it’s true in the moment — ‘You’re right, that was inconsiderate of me’ — most people will take it to heart and make changes later on.”