As a relationship therapist, I am often asked “What’s the biggest problem couples face?” The easy answers are money and sex, but neither would be exactly true or at least not what has walked into my office or my life. The most common problem I see in intimate partnerships is what I call, t
As a relationship therapist, I am often asked “What’s the biggest problem couples face?” The easy answers are money and sex, but neither would be exactly true or at least not what has walked into my office or my life. The most common problem I see in intimate partnerships is what I call, the battle for empathy.
Paula tells Jon that she’s upset and hurt by something he said, a way he responded to her opinion on a family matter. She asks if, in the future, he could say that same thing with an attitude of kindness and/or curiosity and not be so critical, simply because her opinion differed from his. Jon reacts to Paula’s feelings and request by aggressively inquiring why he should offer her kindness and curiosity when last month she had shut down his experience over a different family matter and treated him unkindly. Paula then attacks back, explaining why she deserved to behave the way she did in the interaction last month, and why her response last month was a reaction to what he did two months ago, which she believes was unkind and aggressive. Jon then barks that he was entitled to his behavior two months ago because of the unkind and critical thing she did three months ago… and back and back in time it goes, to a seemingly un-findable place before the hurting began.
Couples do this all the time; they fight for who’s deserving of empathy, whose experience should get to matter, whose hurt should be taken care of and whose experience should be validated. Often, partners refuse to offer empathy to each other because they feel that, to do so, would mean admitting that they are to blame and thus giving up the chance to receive empathy and validation for their own experience. Boiled down, if I care about the fact that my words hurt you then I’m to blame for causing you that pain, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the truth of why I said those words, or more accurately, my experience of why I was entitled to say those words, will never be validated or receive its own empathy. Empathy for you effectively cancels out empathy for me.
As hurt and resentment accumulate in a relationship, it becomes harder and harder to empathize with your partner’s experience because you have so much unheard and un-cared-for pain of your own. When too much unattended pain is allowed to sedimentize between two people, it can be nearly impossible to listen much less care about your partner’s experience. Over time, unhealed wounds create a relationship in which there’s no space left to be heard, no place where some injustice or hurt from the past does not disqualify your right to kindness and support, which just happen to be the essential components of intimacy. For this reason and many others, resentment is the most toxic of all emotions to an intimate relationship.
So, what is to be done if you’ve been in a relationship for some time and hurts have built up and led to resentment and unresolved anger and pain. Is there hope for empathy to regain a foothold in your relationship so that true intimacy can begin flourishing once again? What is the way forward when it feels like there is too much toxic water under the bridge, too much wreckage under your feet to find your way back to a loving bond?
If you asked me if it’s possible, if there’s hope for empathy to re-emerge in your relationship, even when resentment abounds, the answer is probably. But if you asked me whether there are ways to try and rebuild the empathic bond in your relationship, I would answer with a resounding yes. Yes, you can try and yes, the only way you can know if what’s probable can become possible is to name it as a problem and give it your very best effort. One thing you can know for sure is that if you don’t try and address the resentment, it won’t go away by itself.
So, what to do? I suggest, first, that couples set an intention, together, to re-create empathy in the relationship. While this is not necessary, it helps to start with a conscious decision that’s named. Perhaps both of you want to deepen the intimacy or trust, or perhaps just ease the resentment. The intention can be different for each of you, but what’s important is that there’s an agreed upon desire and willingness to bring attention to this issue in the relationship. Sometimes one partner is not willing to set such an intention, often because of precisely the resentment that’s being addressed. But if that’s the case, nonetheless, you can set an intention on your own; while it’s not ideal, it can still bring positive results.
Once an intention has been named, I recommend making a deal to officially press the re-start button on your relationship. You can ritualize/celebrate this relationship re-start date as perhaps a new anniversary, the day you committed to begin again—without the poisons of the past. It’s important that you mark this re-start date in some tangible way that makes it real and sacred. A re-start date means that as of a certain day and time, you are beginning again, so that when you express your feelings to your partner, those feelings matter simply because they exist, and cannot be invalidated because of something that happened in the past. Pressing the re-start button means you get a new point zero, a point at which you are both innocent and entitled to kindness and support. A clean slate. This one step, albeit manufactured, if agreed upon and followed can open up a brand-new field in which to be loving and meet and take care of each other once again.
Along with this, I recommend beginning a new way of communicating with each other. I call this new way the taking turns way. Taking turns means when one partner brings upset or anything difficult or less that positive to the other, she is heard and understood fully. The experience of the other partner, what we might say caused him to behave in the way he did that created the upset, is then held for the next day. While again I am suggesting an imposed way of communicating around difficult issues, this process can encourage non-defensive listening and even compassion. Because you know that your time to tell your side of the story is not coming until tomorrow, you are more able to hear, listen and be present for your partner’s experience. You can also try mirroring back to your partner, through words, what you are hearing him say and feel. And to do this mirroring until he feels that you have correctly “gotten” his experience. Being able to hear your partner without defending yourself (since it’s against the rules for now) can lessen the chances that the exchange will end up feeding new resentments. So too, taking turns at expressing your experience, knowing that you will get to be listened to, without rebuttal, that there will be a guaranteed safe place for your experience to be heard, will ease your anxiety, anger, desperation and despair. It will also vastly improve the possibility of building a newly empathic bond. By communicating one at a time (with a breathing and sleeping break in between), at least for a while, you are creating a garden for kindness, curiosity and support, the defining aspects of intimacy, to at least have a chance to take root and bloom.