Uncertainty & Empathy are Crucial for Couples Survival

The couples that can be toughest to work with, are those where someone has to be right, because then problems are about who wins and who loses instead of how to negotiate to take care of both people. A win/lose mentality is a shallow way to explore the inevitable irreconcilable differences, and it comes from black/white, 1/10 thinking and feeling. As a therapist I value the uncertainty and messiness of therapy or the 4,5, & 6 that is in between these extremes. It’s easier for me because I know that:

1. Truth lies in between people. No one has a corner on the market. Both points of view have merit.

2. My task is to teach each individual to start understanding there is a 3rd entity that is more important than either of you. It’s the two of you as a couple. There’s you, I, and us. All three matter. The us is most often neglected.

3. The mental health and well-being of the couple depends on having some empathy for the other point of view. They must also realize there are always two ways to look at everything and they both count. Instead of fighting so hard for your own point of view, find out if there’s a more vulnerable story underneath. I am astounded by the poignant stories underneath extreme hurt that have been shared with me and not partners. If you love the other person give up the idea of a contest and do the more imaginative work of making room for both of you in problem solving.iStock_000002761784XSmall

4. Give up the idea that a problem shoud be solved immediately. The hard reality is that many, many conversations may need to take place over weeks, months or even years. Talking and talking and talking in the messiness of uncertainty is the goal. It is especially important to sustain talk when things are hard or may be hurtful. Consider it your task to keep talking in prolonged ambiguity.

5. Have some faith that two heads are better than one instead of trying to control the outcome to get what you want. Know that control is ultimately disrespectful because you erase someone else’s point of view to win. Control also leads to a very boring life; uncertainty always leads to a more interesting, creative life of greater depth and substance. See the blog entry “Control is the Opposite of Respect” 7/14/09

6. Risk the uncertainty instead of the safety of silence. Silence ends up being a very resentful, unsafe place to be in. The sad part is that no one really knows what you want. Resentments pile up very easily to blow couples up. *See blog entry “Too many Silent Men and the Price Couples Pay” 7/4/09

Anna Deavere Smith, one of my favorite actors spoke and performed at Chautauqua on August 13 & 14, 2009. She talked about the importance of uncertainty, lack of clarity and self-doubt as the building blocks of creativity. She embodied this in her life when at 29, after being an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon in a tenure track position, she quit and returned to NYC where she walked dogs. Her professional work of listening to people so carefully to reproduce them on stage is clearly about empathy and appreciating all points of view.

So doubt yourself enough to really understand and listen to what’s important underneath the argument. Uncertainty is the glue that can hold couples together by making time to wander around in the talking of all the hard issues that are a part of loving.

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