Walking in Your Partner's Shoes
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Walking in Your Partner's Shoes

Learning to see things from your spouse's point of view can help you resolve -- and even avoid -- conflict.

Walking in Your Partner's Shoes

Sylvia and Gerard are in constant conflict over the level of closeness in their relationship. Sylvia feels she is not a priority in Gerard's life. He seems to get more excited about work or a ski weekend with his friends than about being with her. For his part, Gerard sees Sylvia as constantly dissatisfied. He can never seem to do enough for her, as if he must always prove to her that he cares.

The problem over closeness has become a chronic wedge between them. Sylvia is easily angered by signs of Gerard's lack of commitment to her. If he gets involved in work, or seems too excited about events that don't involve her, her anger often reveals itself in sarcasm: "I hope it's not a burden for you to go with me." Or in provocative comparison: "You seem awfully happy about going out -- a lot happier than I've seen you in a while." Or in outright accusation: "I am way down on the list." Gerard responds by defending himself, insisting that she is a priority for him and that he does want to be with her. When he gets completely frustrated, he may counterattack: "There is no pleasing you. You are so insecure." At times Sylvia gets so worn out by the conflict and feels so hopeless that she shuts down. She stops blaming, but anger pervades her silence.

If you and your partner are stuck in a similar vortex of anger and hurt, it may seem impossible to extricate yourselves. But when your focus shifts from the offending actions of each of you to the soft spots that are bruised by these actions, you may come to a new understanding of each other -- one that cuts angry arguments short and over time brings you closer.

The key to resolving, and even avoiding conflict, is acceptance. But true acceptance can only happen when you both take the time and effort to disclose aspects of yourselves that may have rarely, or perhaps never, been voiced before. What we don't say is often more important than what we do say.

Chronic conflict can leave you believing that you've already said everything there is to be said on the subject of contention. In fact, though, you and your spouse may be only dimly aware of your feelings, or you may not feel safe disclosing them. Yet it is precisely these revelations that could alter the tone of the discussion and perhaps evoke empathy between you. When the two of you are in conflict, remember to make these "disclosures."

Disclose your True Angry Feelings

One of you may be caught up in laying blame, while the other is preoccupied with self-protection, rebuttal and counterattack. One or both of you may be distant and resentful. Neither of you says outright, "I'm really angry at you right now." Yet, a direct statement can be a first step away from futile debate and toward a potentially fruitful discussion of each partner's emotional experience.

Take Sylvia and Gerard, for example. Sylvia is so angry at Gerard's neglect that she's unlikely to be swayed by any factual evidence he can muster. It is as if she is saying "I don't think you love me, so I'll try to beat it out of you." And he is saying in response "I'm threatened by your upset, so I'll try to calm you with terse, dismissive recitations of fact."

Instead, Gerard might say: "Right now I'm feeling attacked and want to defend myself. I'm so overwhelmed that at this moment, even though I know I love you, I don't feel any love." If Sylvia were aware of what was going on with her emotionally and could articulate it, she would say something like "I'm so angry at you right now that I'm not open to hearing you. I just want to attack you." Such a message would be difficult for Sylvia to make because Gerard could use it against her. "See, you admitted it. You don't care about whether I love you or not -- you just want to attack me." However, her disclosure would prevent his fruitless efforts to prove himself to her. And it might make him listen to her.

Disclose Crucial Background Information

Arguments can become so habitual and reactions so immediate that partners play their parts with little knowledge of what set them off. They may not even notice important conditions that set off a particular discussion and make it different from previous ones.

For example, Sylvia is concerned about some lumps she feels in her breast. She tried to get Gerard to feel them, but he made only a half-hearted attempt saying, "I'm no doctor." He told her to see her doctor. The morning of her appointment, Sylvia awakes worried. She goes into the kitchen and finds Gerard with his head in the newspaper, eating his breakfast. He barely acknowledges her. Her fear over her appointment turns to anger at Gerard. She sarcastically says: "That must be a fascinating article in the paper."

Gerard assumes that this is the same old conflict: "Come off it, Sylvia. Can't a guy read the paper in peace?" Sylvia has an urge to blurt out something about her appointment but doesn't, for fear he will dismiss her concerns. Then if her "lumps" prove to be not significant, he would gloat about being right and lecture her again.

The crucial piece of information that would have made the morning understandable -- Sylvia's worry about her doctor's visit -- was never a point of discussion. Although there is no guarantee that Gerard would have responded the way she hoped, if Sylvia had mentioned the appointment and her feelings about it, it might have refocused their discussion and led to some genuine support from Gerard. Not mentioning it robbed them of that opportunity.

Disclose "Softer" Emotions

When things happen to us that we don't like, we experience hard emotions such as anger, irritation, impatience, resentment, frustration and disgust. These emotions express a strong self that says in no uncertain terms "I'm upset with the world" and "I'm not going to take this anymore." Expression of these feelings is beneficial because it often provides release for some of the negativity we feel and because it establishes our boundaries with others. Unfortunately, it often invites a response in kind: anger may elicit anger and resentment. Not only can this lead to escalation, but it may also discourage the love and compassion whose absence evoked the hard emotions in the first place.

In contrast, the expression of "soft" emotions such as hurt and fear can trigger caring and concern in your partner. When we see others in pain, particularly others we care about, we naturally feel compassion for them. We want to comfort and protect them. We forget about our own needs and reach out to them. Unfortunately, soft emotions and soft thoughts usually go unexpressed in conflict. Often they are attempted but sabotaged by the atmosphere of hard emotion around them. One may voice, "I feel hurt by you," but the manner in which the admission is delivered and the emphasis on the "by you" at the end make it more of an accusation than an expression of pain. However, a genuine expression of soft emotion, voicing that you are lonely or hurt or disappointed or feel neglected, is difficult because it opens you up. It presents you as vulnerable and defenseless. It may feel uncomfortable to do in any circumstance and impossible to do when you are angry.

Disclose the Other Side

In an enduring conflict, each partner stakes out a position and becomes more and more entrenched in that position. Sylvia's position is that Gerard doesn't express enough love and affection for her. Gerard's position is that Sylvia demands more than any reasonable man could give. As in most couple's conflicts, there's some truth in each person's position. Logically, then, each must question his or her own position at times. Sylvia must wonder if she is asking too much of Gerard or if she is too needy or oversensitive. Similarly, Gerard must wonder at times if he is selfish or ungenerous or unloving. Both are reluctant to express such doubt about themselves because these disclosures of doubt could easily be used against them.

However, expressing these doubts would acknowledge the validity in each person's position. Questioning their own position or admitting to the truth in the other's view might elevate both Sylvia and Gerard from the struggle over who is right. Then they might be able to join one another in the realization that both are right and both are wrong. Relieved of the burden of defending themselves or attacking the other, they might be able to work more successfully on their difficult problem.

Disclose Your Anticipations

Even when couples are not in the middle of conflict, they may anticipate future conflict. Having been through certain arguments so often in the past, they know the kind of events that provoke them. These "preliminary events" take place, and couples anticipate, often accurately, that conflict will soon follow. They may be reluctant to share their anticipations for fear that the very act of sharing will hasten the conflict. Yet, without some intervening communication, the anticipated conflict may proceed inexorably.

On their way to a skiing weekend, Sylvia is concerned that Gerard, a better skier, will abandon her on the slopes or will devote so much attention to skiing that their time together will get short shrift. She remembers a ski weekend a year ago when he got up early to get on the slopes before the crowds arrived, skied all day, and then planned to go night skiing. At that point she blew up and threatened to go home by herself. He didn't go night skiing, but he might as well have; they had a horrible evening together.

If Gerard and Sylvia could openly disclose their concerns about the upcoming weekend without sparking a conflict, they might feel some relief in their joint apprehension. They could have an exchange like this:

Sylvia: I'm a little worried about this weekend. Gerard: You mean about us. Sylvia: Yeah. Gerard: We don't have a great record when it comes to ski weekends, do we? Sylvia: (laughing ruefully): No, we don't.

That said, these two might then be able to discuss how to manage the weekend so both get their needs met. They could make sure they have time together as well as time apart for Gerard to challenge himself on the expert slopes. It is possible for Gerard and Sylvia to have both a close relationship and good skiing, but it might take some communication and cooperation. Avoiding a discussion leaves a lot to chance.

Exercise: Growing Closer Through Conflict

Some couples experience their moments of greatest intimacy after conflict. They heal each other's wounds with love. They demonstrate that conflicts don't just alienate; they can also unite. How can you and your partner recover from conflict more quickly and with less emotional hangover? It often helps to reveal more of your emotions to your partner, to find out more about his or her emotional state, and to find points where you can empathize with your partner's feelings. Try these suggestions next time conversations escalate.

  • If you and your partner are in a situation that is likely to get argumentative, try revealing more about your hopes and your anticipations about the current situation. See if you can discern and understand your partner's similar hopes and anticipations.
  • In an actual conflict situation, try revealing something emotional that is going on with you at the moment. This disclosure might be as simple as saying "I am feeling really angry at you right now." If you are feeling like taking a bigger risk, try revealing some of your soft feelings, such as your pain and disappointment.
  • Voice what you think your partner may be feeling. Acknowledge some truth in your partner's view and note that you too wonder about yourself on that dimension.
  • If you're trying to recover from a conflict with your partner and feel that conversation might help, focus on the beginning of the conflict, when neither of you was angry or out of control. That's when you were easier to understand.
  • See if you can understand how either your own or your partner's efforts to reconcile did not work for the other.
  • Find out if you did or said something that was especially painful to your partner during the conflict. See if you can understand how your partner might have experienced that deed or statement as hurtful. Reveal what was done that was hurtful to you.
  • Finally, focus on any positive actions that may have emerged even in the midst of conflict.

None of these suggested behaviors is foolproof. But if you never try anything different, you may never experience the relief that comes when you accept each other's experiences rather than battle about them. And you may miss out on the intimacy that comes when difficult and troubling feelings are met with understanding and compassion.

From Reconcilable Differences (Guilford Press, 2002) by Andrew Christiansen, Ph.D. and Neil Jacobsen, PhD. Reprinted by permission.