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.
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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.

Continued on page 2:  Disclose Crucial Background Information

 

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