Assigning meaning to your partner’s behavior can get you into trouble.
Ann was sobbing because her husband had “proven” that he considered her less important than other people; he valued and trusted others over her. On top of that, he had intentionally excluded her—because he didn’t think she really mattered.
Ann spent the first half-hour telling me what the situation with her husband meant, and what it confirmed. Eventually, however, she got to what had actually happened. I discovered that her husband of eight years, Bill, had agreed to have coffee with an old college friend who was also a former girlfriend. The romantic relationship between the two had ended 12 years ago, amicably, but they had maintained a friendship over the years. Both were now happily married.
According to Ann, it was a positive, trusting, and solid marriage. She felt loved and appreciated by Bill; she knew that he genuinely wanted to be with her, and also trusted that he wouldn’t cheat on her. But her experience of feeling loved and appreciated instantly went out the window when the issue of friendships with other women arose.
Bill’s willingness to keep a friendship going with his ex-girlfriend made Ann feel unimportant and excluded. But it didn’t just make her feel these feelings, it proved that her husband believed that she was unimportant, and that he was deliberately excluding her from an inner circle of people who really mattered. When other women were important to her husband, it meant one thing, that she was unimportant. She had no real place in his life and there was no “we.”
Some history: Ann had grown up with three brothers, an emotionally absent and depressed mother, and “an authoritative and dismissive” father, who valued his sons in ways he never valued Ann. As she experienced it, her brothers held the keys to a castle into which she could never gain entry. Her siblings received real attention, her father’s genuine interest; they possessed something fundamentally important that she did not.
When Ann turned eight, her life turned upside down. Her mother left her father and took Ann with her to live with another man, while her brothers stayed with their father. With this new partner, her mother was reborn; she became vibrant and joyful, someone Ann had never known. But sadly, her mother’s joy only existed in relation to her man, but not with Ann, who felt like perpetual a third wheel and unwanted remnant of something bad in this new happy family. Ann’s mother and her new man, who became Ann’s stepfather, went on to have two children of their own. And while it was lovely on the surface, it was clear to Ann that her parents’ relationship with their own children was fundamentally different than with her. She wasn’t as important or perfect as her siblings; she wasn’t born out of love and happiness, but something dark and unhappy, an awful past that her mother had left behind.
Bill, on the other hand, grew up in a family that was loving and warm, but also fiercely righteous. His parents valued “loyalty” at all costs. If a friend, colleague, or other relative was perceived to have slighted or disrespected the family, which could be as simple as having a different experience of what was “right” than the family, that person was immediately cut out of the fold and treated as if they didn’t exist. Bill had lost important relationships because of what the family perceived as a violation to their rightness. Once someone was out, they were out for good, and never allowed back in again. As Bill described, “It was a rough and unforgiving system. On the inside, you were protected, defended, and loved to the death. But if you were cast out, you would be left out to die, which I knew could have happened to me too.” It was a family of black or white…no grey.
Returning to the present, Bill’s coffee with another woman activated Ann’s feelings of inadequacy, the old wounds that she had lived as a child; it validated her negative self-experience, and reaffirmed her story of being excluded. For Bill, on the other hand, the meeting was a corrective and healing opportunity, a chance to live the grey of life, to welcome relationships that included conflict, and intentionally keep his heart open. It was a chance to behave differently than his family, to not cut people out of his life because they weren’t perfect.
Problems in intimate relationships arise not because we have different experiences of the same “reality,” but rather, because we don’t make space and allow for our different experiences. We are (mistakenly) taught that to be in love means to have the same experience, the same inner reality with our partner. But this is false. To be in love, in fact, is to be able to hold our different experiences, different realities, empathically, within one container of acceptance.
The conflict arises because we assume that our inner experience, the meaning we’re assigning to what’s happening in “reality,” is the truth. Because we believe that our story of what is is what is, we assume that our partner must also be operating within our same “reality.” And therefore, our partner must also know what their behavior means in “reality.” If we are experiencing suffering, it can only mean that they are intentionally deciding to do to us what we have decided they are doing to us. This would all be logical except for the fact that it rests on two utterly false assumptions. First, that what “reality” means for us—is—what it means. And second, that we share an internal “reality” with our partner, that what is true for us is true for them.
It’s hard, particularly in our closest relationships, to step back and consider the meaning we’re assigning to our partner’s behavior, the story we’re telling ourselves about what’s happening and what it signifies about us. We’re reluctant to unpack the young, unhealed pain that our partner activates in us. We resist examining all this, in part, because it would entail separating from our story at least enough to be able to see it, which, as we imagine it, would be abandoning the pain from which it was born. To look at the meaning we’re assigning our partner’s actions would suggest that our meaning might not be the only meaning. To even call our experience a story can feel like we’re discrediting or invalidating it. What we call our story and the meaning we’re making, after all, was born out of real suffering that we lived through. Our original story is not one we made up out of thin air.
None of this is to suggest that you are to blame for your suffering, that if you would only take responsibility for your emotional history, look at your narrative, you wouldn’t have to suffer. None of that is true, and we do enough unwarranted blaming of ourselves already.
While it’s true that we are each living our own private, self-authored realities, this doesn’t mean that conflict and suffering are inevitable or that intimacy is impossible. Paradoxically, our differing realities of the same reality can in fact be used to create more intimacy and deeper love and understanding, more closeness in the midst of our differences.
In order for this kind of deepening to happen, for differences to create intimacy not rupture, we need two things: awareness and empathy. First, we have to be willing to examine the meaning we assign to what’s happening, our historical wounds, and how we’re assuming our meaning to be the Truth. And furthermore, how we may be assigning intention to our partner where it may not exist.
Simultaneously (as if that weren’t enough), we have to be willing to hear our partner’s experience of the “same” situation, to allow the meaning it holds for our partner to also be true. We have to be willing to hear and allow this even when our partner’s experience is radically different from our own, and sometimes painful to know.
When we offer understanding and empathy to our own experience, with all its facets, and at the same time offer that same understanding and empathy to our partner’s experience, with all its facets; when we can do that without getting into whose experience is right or real—then we are on our way to the deepest kind of intimacy. To allow and hold each other’s different realities within a larger, shared reality of acceptance, this is to be.