Empathy is the sweetest gift
Relationships are often difficult, and I mean all relationships; our parents, our children, our co-workers, teachers and, probably most frequently, our romantic relationships, whatever you wish to call them; spouse, partner, lover, soul-mate or maybe ball-and-chain.
At the beginning of one of these new romantic partnerships we are just that; romantic. It is often cited as “the first stage” during which we are deliberately blind to each other's flaws and shape ourselves in a way that we believe will make us more desirable; “of course! I *love* football!”; “shopping for clothes?! How did you know? It’s my favourite!”.
You can read more about the five relationship stages online, but in this article I’m interested in what happens when the rose-tinted spectacles come off. In case you don’t know what I mean and you are one of the lucky few to have always had a rock-solid relationship, I mean when misunderstandings occur; when cracks appear; when your worlds don’t quite align. As a counsellor I hear it a great deal: “How was it not obvious to him that I just needed a hug?!”; “I think it’s weird and wrong that she still talks to her old boyfriend”; “Why doesn’t he stand up to his mother?”.
I don’t think this is the gender excuse we used in the 1990s (Mars/Venus) - I think it occurs in all combinations of gender relationships. These differences can be a huge part in what can pull on our deeper insecurities and drive a wedge between. They can lead us down the path of what John Gottman, the man who can predict the outcome of 91% of relationships, calls the ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse‘; criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.
You don’t want that - well, not if you want to stay together at least.
So how can you both look at your differences in a way that helps your relationship?
Do you remember when you were a child and you first ran outside on a freezing day in just a t-shirt? Well, probably not that actual experience, but you know it must have happened because you somehow learned what it feels like. It’s pretty likely that, unless your partner grew up somewhere hot, they had a similar experience when they were young. Today, as adults in a relationship, you both know that on a cold day you wrap up warm. Neither of you think that this is a strange way to behave. All good. Bear with me.
Now imagine that your partner had managed to miss out on this childhood experience, did grow up in a hot country, and suddenly today is complaining how cold they are in just a t-shirt. Without understanding the context from which this experience is missing, this might just seem like very odd behaviour.
Okay, so that is a crude analogy, but it helps to illustrate what might be going on in a relationship. We make allowances for obvious cultural differences, but we don’t seem to consider that our partner’s micro-culture of their family might also have subtle differences to our own.
Imagine after a time of being together your partner suddenly becomes afraid that you might leave him - in fact, he believes that you don’t love him any more. This is obvious to him because he believes that you are always angry with him and nothing he does ever pleases you. This may come as a complete surprise to you; you may think “I’m really not angry with you! Is it just because I haven’t said how amazing it is? Now I *am* beginning to feel angry”. This is the point when an argument might be on the cards - hang on, rewind a minute, where might this be coming from?
When you were young, perhaps you were gently praised for the things you did, no matter what it was. Perhaps you received love and hugs and smiles just for being you.
Do you know what his childhood was really like? Yes, he may well say he was happy and fed and clothed, just like you, and that he had a perfectly normal life, just like you. And in that “normal” childhood perhaps he too received praise, but with an edge; “That’s great that you got 98% but what do you think happen to the other 2?”, or “That’s a lovely picture, but you know that spiders only have 8 legs right?”. Or maybe even stronger “What is your mother teaching you?! You are 6 years old and you can’t even tie your shoe-laces! Right, no playing until you have learned it.”. This child could well grow up feeling not good enough, seeing anger and disappointment where there is none.
Suddenly, by understanding the context from which someone’s fears come from, the picture changes. Now his fear makes sense and instead of the ensuing argument, perhaps you feel compassion. In reality, neither your nor his experience is “normal” because “normal” doesn’t exist.
It may sound like a cliché but perhaps communication is the answer - finding out how to step into their world and understand the whole person, their experiences, their context. You are both beautifully unique, both right and both worthy of love.
Be kind to each other.
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About Ben Wrigley
Ben Wrigley works in private practice and the NHS as a BACP qualified humanistic counsellor and works with a diverse range of people and problems. He is driven to help people in and out of counselling to question why they do, think and feel about themselves and the world in the way that they do.