Rinse and Repeat
Sometimes I feel like we are having the same arguments over and over again. I hate asking for help, but if I don’t ask, he doesn’t automatically know what I need. I grumble, he starts to try to figure out what the problem is, he gets frustrated that I don’t come right out and say what’s on my mind, and I get frustrated that I have to say anything at all.
“Why don’t you see what I see? Why do I always have to say things and ask you for help?”
“Babe, I just don’t. I see other things – the garbage, the lawn, the bills – I don’t expect you to see those things. You know if you just say something, I’m happy to help.”
“I know! It’s just that I hate asking all the time…”
Rinse and repeat.
It’s one of our seasonal tiffs; it’s always the same. Do you have one of those? Most couples do. If we were sitting across from each other over coffee and I asked you, “What’s the thing you guys fight about most?” you’d have an answer instantly. If you felt like you could trust me, you may even tell me what that was. It’s ok. You can trust me…
We Don’t Have to Compromise
The good news is there isn’t any research that indicates that a healthy marriage is one without conflict. In fact, research does tell us that we don’t even need to resolve every argument. We don’t need to compromise all the time. We don’t always need to reach an agreement. We don’t even need to end our fights with any new action plans.
Don’t believe me? Check out what I read in Dr. John Medina’s book Brain Rules for Baby…
“Research shows that 70 percent of marital conflicts are not resolvable; the disagreement remains. As long as the participants learn to live with their differences – one of the biggest challenges in marriage – this is not necessarily bad news. But differences must be grasped, even if no problems are solved.”
Mind blown? I was!
You DON’T need to solve your problems? Well, what the heck are we fighting for, then? All this time I thought the point of having an argument in the first place was to come up with a solution. I showed it to Tony and he reacted the same way. It’s still a little puzzling, but the part that brings more clarity is what Medina says about grasping the differences. He says it is most important that both partners believe they are fully understood and that being heard can relieve the tension even more so than working and fighting to reach a mutual agreement.
Empathy is Key
Dr. Medina is certainly not the first writer to notice this phenomenon. Leo Tolstoy, who wrote such classics as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, said, “What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility.”
So, how are you dealing with it? Are you escalating these arguments? Are you stonewalling until you get your way? Or, are you truly trying to understand the person standing in front of you?
Medina shares that the key to dealing with incompatibilities is empathy. He says, “One of the reasons empathy works so well is because it does not require a solution. It requires only understanding.”
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It is a skill that comes with practice. It is a skill that demands that you make every effort to escape from seeing only from your selfish perspective to imagine what someone else might be experiencing. It is a skill that requires you to drop feelings of defensiveness so that you can enter into the conversation with grace.
Empathy: The Awkward Dance
Responding to your spouse with empathy, especially if it’s not your usual habit, is a lot like dancing with someone for the first time. Did you guys have those P.E. classes where, for a weird season, you focused on learning a few dances instead of how to play badminton or run relays? Thankfully, the P.E. teacher would pair you up to save you from the disgrace of waiting to be asked to dance or of having to ask someone to do this thing with you. Still, HOLY CRAP, how embarrassing!
The first few steps together were the worst… Do I look in his eyes – nooooooooo! – or at my feet to make sure I’m not about to step on him? Oh jeez! Why are we even learning this? None of us are going to dance the Waltz or the Texas Two Step at the Jr. High dance at the end of the year, are we? I mean, I’m probably not even going to that dance.
Still, all of those awkward years later, I see something different. I was learning how to lead and how to follow. I was learning to communicate in the midst of vulnerability without words. Exercising empathy is a lot like learning those old fashioned dance steps. It can feel awkward, and cumbersome, and labored, and silly. But, over time, if you practice, it begins to feel natural and lovely instead of torturous. You can move through this dance of empathy and enjoy your partner, and you don’t even have to pretend anymore like you are only doing it because you have to.
Would you like to learn a new kind of Two Step? This Two Step can take your arguments from pointless and divisive to bridging the gap of misunderstanding and bringing you and your partner closer together. The trick is, one of you has to choose to take the lead… (Hint: Pin this image so you can come back to it later and talk about it with your dance partner… see what I did there?)
After learning about this method in Brain Rules for Baby, Tony and I gave it a go. Like that Jr. High dance, it felt silly and forced at first. Really, any time you want to work on a new way to communicate, there’s always a bit of awkwardness to push through.
What I liked about this Empathy Two Step was the subtle nuance, the one small difference between Tony simply saying to me, “What’s wrong?” to him naming how he thinks I’m feeling and at least taking a stab at why I might be feeling this way. If you’ve been following the blog much, you might have gathered that I have a tough time talking about my feelings when I’m upset. So, when he asks me, “What’s wrong?,” what do you think I typically say?
“Seriously? Nothing? Something is clearly wrong.”
“I don’t want to talk about it right now. I don’t know what to say.” … and there we are.
With Medina’s Empathy Reflex, the same scenario looks more like this:
“Michelle, you seem frustrated. Is it because the house is a mess?”
“I AM frustrated, but it’s not the mess. I’m frustrated because I want to get out of the house, but it feels like it is taking forever to get the girls ready to go.”
See? Even if he guesses wrong, I am much more inclined to honor the fact that he is trying to figure it out, and I also sort of feel invited to express myself to him. I’ve tried it with him, too, and it seems to work both ways. The point isn’t to guess the exact right thing, or even the exact right feeling. The point is to try- to engage with your spouse and to attempt to understand how they might be feeling. From there, it seems much easier to have a conversation or even a healthier fight.
Now, back to this business about not having to solve our problems… I do think some things are solvable, and I think we should try to reach resolutions. But, what a relief to know that it’s no longer the priority when things get heated. If understanding each other truly is key, if empathy really is so important, I think we’d all be better off to lead with that Empathy Two-Step and start making some guesses about the scowl on your spouse’s face so that we can #staymarried.
Would you like to read more about having healthy arguments? You might enjoy How Being Defensive is Hurting Your Marriage and Soften Your Startup. Also, don’t forget to Pin the Empathy Two Step diagram so you can come back to it later.
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