- Esther Perel is a couples therapist and the author of “Mating in Captivity” and “The State of Affairs.” She says showing empathy and taking responsibility are the “saving grace” of any strained relationship. You want to see your relationship as a “both/and” experience, as opposed to an “either/or” one.
Fights with a partner tend to escalate in a way that fights with, say, a coworker don’t necessarily.
“I’m exhausted,” one person might say. “I worked all day.” “You’re exhausted?” the other person might respond. “I worked all day and then went to pick up two screaming kids!” And so on.
Perel has found two behaviors that can stop a conflict like this one from spiraling out of control – behaviors that are so powerful she calls them the “saving grace” of any rocky relationship: showing empathy and taking responsibility.
When she visited the Business Insider office in September, Perel said, “There are not many things that are as important in a strained relationship as the ability to show empathy for the experience of the other; to acknowledge what the other person is going through; to validate that the other person is going through this, that it makes sense that they would be feeling this way.”
Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen often enough. Here’s an example.
Perel recently came out with an audio series, titled “Where Should We Begin?” in which listeners follow along as Perel counsels a struggling couple. In the first episode, a husband and wife are dealing with the discovery of the husband’s infidelity.
At one point, the wife says that after her husband betrayed her, she asked herself, “What was all that hard work for?”
The husband responds quickly: “I mean, I understand how you feel because I felt the same way.”
Perel interjects here and tells the husband to avoid the impulse to “equalize” his experience and his wife’s. Instead, she advises him to “reflect back” using the words, “So what I’m hearing you say is…”
Recent research supports the idea that empathy and understanding are key to navigating conflict successfully in a relationship. In one study, people who talked about a time when they’d clashed with their partner but felt understood were more satisfied with their relationships than people who talked about a time when they clashed but didn’t feel understood.
In fact, one of the study authors told Quartz that simply telling the other person that you understand where they’re coming from – even if you don’t yet – may be helpful. (Perel tweeted about the research.)
The other component of keeping a struggling relationship afloat is taking responsibility for your behavior. Instead of evaluating the other person and scrutinizing their every misstep, Perel suggested flipping the mirror onto yourself.
“It’s so easy to focus on what’s missing in the other person. It’s so easy to go critical. It’s so easy to think that if you were different, my life would be better, rather than sometimes to switch it around and think if I was different, my life would be better. And maybe if I was different with you, you would be different with me.”
It can be hard – our natural impulse in a conflict is to grab for the other person’s shortcomings.
But Perel said you might ask yourself, “What is it that I do that may contribute to what you do?” For example, “Do I talk all the time and then I complain you never talk because I never give you any airspace?”
The point here is to see the relationship as what Perel calls “both/and,” as opposed to either/or. “Every one of these situations, the degree to which we see it as complementary or the degree to which we actually focus on the polarization,” she said, “that will make a huge difference on the quality of the relationship.”