Perhaps this is a familiar scenario to you: you and your partner can’t see eye to eye. You’re arguing all the time and feel like you’re each constantly trying to prove to the other that your viewpoint is right while theirs is wrong. It wasn’t always like this. There was a time where you got along effortlessly, you understood each other and could provide comfort and support to one another. It is now utterly confusing and mystifying how you and your partner ever got along, and disappointing how you now feel like strangers. You long to figure out how you can get on the same page again, and perhaps most importantly, feel seen, heard, and acknowledged lovingly by your partner again.
In today’s post, I want to share a perspective shift that I utilize in couples therapy that could very well set you and your partner back on the path of connection and closeness. I want to focus on the difference between trying to understand your partner versus trying to convince them to buy into your point of view. This shift toward understanding and validating your partner can serve to create meaningful and lasting positive change in your relationship. To start, I’d like to share the difference between trying to convince and trying to understand your partner.
Trying to convince your partner looks like:
Arguing, debating, and trying to prove your point.
Viewing your perspective as “right” and your partner’s perspective as “wrong.”
Telling your partner that their feelings are illogical and don’t make sense.
Telling your partner what you believe is good for them.
Turning the conversation back toward you when your partner is sharing about their emotional struggles.
Minimizing your partner’s feelings or perspective about something since it does not make sense to you or is not important to you.
Trying to understand your partner looks like:
Putting yourself in your partner’s shoes.
Finding the “kernel of truth” in your partner’s perspective, even when your viewpoints are completely different from one another’s.
Validating your partner’s emotions.
Believing your partner when they tell you their needs, wants, and desires.
Acknowledging that there are two valid realities and viewpoints when struggling with a conflict.
Trying to figure out a middle ground or compromise between both your perspectives.
Setting aside your prejudices, preferences, and what works for you in order to openly accept your partner’s differing needs.
Why understanding is so powerful in relationships
I’m guessing that if you’ve read through the above lists, the latter sounds much more appealing to you and your relationship. Working to understand your partner is a subtle yet incredibly powerful approach to establishing trust, closeness, and emotional intimacy. Think about anytime you’ve felt hurt, upset, angry, disappointed, or frustrated. What have you most wanted from the people around you? I’m guessing you’ve likely wished for a quiet listening ear, a hug, or for someone to reflect back on why it makes sense to feel what you’re feeling. And what have you noticed when others have been able to offer you validation and understanding? You likely felt seen, heard, important, significant, appreciated, and loved.
I believe something that human beings crave most is feeling seen, heard, and understood. It is a fundamental and basic wish to feel like our feelings make sense, that our viewpoints and emotions matter, and that other people in our lives “get” us. What often happens in long-term relationships is that each relationship partner starts seeing only the “negative” about their partner, all the things they do “wrong,” and all the ways their partner “should” change in order to get back on the same page. Slowly but surely, a chasm develops between partners in which they feel more isolated from one another, alone within the relationship, and lacking in emotional closeness and intimacy. Feelings of hatred, resentment, anger, and vitriol start to rise to the surface, making it difficult to get back to the happiness a couple once experienced.
So, what are some small steps you can start taking to become more curious and understanding about your partner? Here are a few ideas:
Put away all devices, turn off the TV. Place your focus 100% on your partner. Maintain eye contact and express attentiveness via your body language, such as nodding your head in response to your partner and holding their hand. Focus on listening to them versus forming a response in your head as they’re speaking.
Once your partner has shared their perspective, reflect back what you heard. Ask your partner if your interpretation was accurate or if there is anything they would like to clarify about what you heard.
Express validation of your partner’s emotions
Validation is one of the most effective ways to express understanding. Validation demonstrates to your partner that you acknowledge their viewpoint and emotional experiences. Statements like the ones below can go a long way in demonstrating understanding:
“I get it.”
“It makes sense that you feel that way.”
“Given what you’ve been through I see why you see it that way.”
“You’re entitled to feel that way.”
“That’s a bummer.”
“That must be really difficult.”
“I see what you mean.”
"I'm here for you."
Shift your perspective
Often, when couples reach a point where they feel more like enemies than like teammates, they’ve reached a place of seeing each other as the obstacle to a possible resolution. They tackle a problem with a “me vs. you” attitude and perspective, leading to impasses, stalemates, increased arguing, and mounting frustration. A helpful perspective shift is to view you and your partner as a team that is overcoming the problem together. How can you picture yourselves coming together to tackle a problem? How can you bring both your perspectives together to see the problem as the obstacle needing to be tackled?
For example, you would like to save more money in the coming year. You’ve been frustrated by your partner’s spending habits and have been constantly arguing with them about how they handle their finances. A “You versus the problem” approach would remove accusations, criticisms, and judgments of your partner and view wanting to save more money as the problem to be solved. You could reinforce to your partner how you sense that saving money now would lead to increased happiness and security in the future for both of you, and work with your partner to come up with tangible and specific strategies and solutions to save more money. You could also invite your partner to offer possible solutions and ideas, as well, to reinforce the concept that you are a team working to tackle this problem together.
Shift from black and white, all or nothing, and dichotomous thinking
When we conceptualize relationship problems from an “I’m right, you’re wrong,” perspective we are engaging in what is labeled black and white, all or nothing, or dichotomous thinking.
We often engage in this kind of thinking in order to gain a sense of safety and security. When we can neatly compartmentalize situations, thoughts, and ideas into categories, it helps us feel more certain, safe, and secure. And while this can be helpful in some scenarios, it tends to be kryptonite for relationships. Indeed, as human beings we are multi-faceted, complex, and dialectical in our beliefs, feelings, and perspectives. As a result, it can help tremendously to evaluate whether you tend to approach your partner’s experiences from a black and white perspective and explore how you can develop more of a middle ground or middle path when hearing out your partner’s viewpoint. In DBT, we often talk about developing dialectical thinking or a dialectical perspective, as a means to view situations from a place where there are multiple valid and reasonable truths, and how those realities can come together to form a compromise that works between you and your partner
I am confident that by finding ways to approach your partner from a place of understanding, you will begin to experience a real and positive shift in your relationship dynamic. You will likely feel yourself softening toward them, experiencing increased compassion, and seeing them from a holistic, well-rounded place. In turn, they will likely soften toward you, feel safer to express themselves, and feel more emotionally intimate. I invite you to try some of the ideas mentioned to see how it paves the way toward the more peaceful and harmonious relationship you so deeply crave.
Seeking couples therapy or couples counseling in Boca Raton, FL? Feel free to reach out to schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation, and see how I can help you with your mental health, therapy, and relationship goals. Call me at 917-843-7803 or at email@example.com