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Empathize, then synergize (or compromise)

In relationships, we tend to start with solutions and problem solving, rather than deep understanding of the other person’s needs. We have a need, and our imagination quickly offers up a scenario in which that need is met. So we propose it to our partner or family member.

But the result is often frustration.

As it turns out, our partner has a totally opposite need, and their imagination proposed a very different scenario. They tell us how they think it should be.

“You want what???” Both parties think.

Then the compromise is attempted.

Sometimes this works, when the difference isn’t too large, or that important. But often it feels like trying to cross the grand canyon with a few 2×4 planks.

We try to be creative, with various levels of compromise. We think we’re being so reasonable. How can such stellar offers be refused by someone who is supposed to care about us? Can’t they stretch themselves a little more? For us?

Sometimes, the extra stretch comes from empathy. Sometimes, the issue we’re attempting to resolve isn’t the deepest issue, and is amplified by a deeper undercurrent: how loved and cared for we feel.

I’ll give two examples.

Example 1: How much do you want it?

Imagine a couple having a disagreement about their sex life. One of them wants to have sex 5 times per week, and the other wants to have it once every two weeks.

Our natural tendency is to immediately go to haggling. “How about this?” the one who wants more sex says. “How about 3 times per week?”

Then comes the counter-offer: “I might be able to do 3 times per month…”

And so, even though both are stretching more than they want, they are still short of an agreement by a factor of 4.

But imagine if solutions were shelved indefinitely, and instead both partners focused on understanding the other. The partner who wants sex more asks, with curiosity, what it’s like for the other to have such a different level of desire. They might share about feeling pressured, disconnected, hurt that their sexual needs haven’t been met in the bedroom in the past, or about feeling too stressed with work and home responsibilities, and not supported enough by the other in unburdening those stresses, leading to harboring some resentment. If these experiences are heard and honored, empathy is entering the equation.

The partner who wants more sex needs to be understood as well. They might talk of feeling lonely, rejected, and undesirable. They might feel their discouragement from so many unsuccessful attempts at intimacy, and how it reminds them of previous life experiences. They might talk about how, feeling unloved in various other ways in the relationship, they want sex to compensate because it’s one of the only times they do feel loved.

If both partners can truly hear the other without getting defensive or judgmental, something productive happens. They feel cared for, understood, accepted. In other words, they feel loved.

The deeper and underlying issue was not really a sex frequency compromise, but trust being compromised.

I’m not saying it always works like this, but imagine that they just start playing the sex thing by ear. One night, the sexually eager partner respects the other’s need for space and self-sooths, with a more generous heart. To their surprise, just cuddling feels more nourishing than normal, and they don’t feel too rejected. The other, sexually hesitant partner senses this and feels loved. The next night, although they still aren’t super keen for sex, they decide to try to get in the mood, out of newfound understanding, as well as love that they now want to reciprocate. To their surprise, it’s quite good compared to how it’s been.

And eventually, without problem-solving or compromise haggling, they find that they are having sex 1-3 times per week, depending on the week, and both are actually quite satisfied on the whole. Neither feels overly rejected or coerced, because there is a mutual understanding and sense of trust and caring.

Under the hood, what’s going on is that both moved away from emotional avoidance of hurt from feeling unloved, they were just dealing with it in opposite ways. One dealt with the rejection by pursuing more intimacy as reassurance. The other dealt with it by withdrawing. The sex wasn’t as good, and one decided “let’s just do more of it then” to compensate, and the other thought, “why bother then? I’ll just do it the bare minimum.”

But with the empathy came intimacy, and the times sex did happen, it made intimacy better. The sexually-eager partner then became satisfied with lower quantity but higher quality, and the hesitant partner came to want higher quality because the quality increased.

What seemed like a sex frequency problem on the surface was actually more of a “do you really love me?” problem.

Example 2: Where’s the line?

In another example, imagine that a couple is having a disagreement about how much they can be friends with attractive members of the opposite sex, or exes. One partner says, “zero”. The other says, “as much as I want.”

The compromise instinct ensues, and they are off to the haggling races. But almost no amount of freedom in this area seems acceptable to the one who is anti-attractive friend of the opposite sex (which I will abbreviate heretofore as anti-AFOS), and almost no amount of control feels tolererable to the pro-AFOS partner.

Frustration sets in, and both partners feel rejected (either threatened with abandonment or smothering). They respond by re-asserting, even more forcibly, what they believe they need in order to feel loved and complete.

But — if empathy is employed first, we can imagine a similar scneario to the above, in which both sides are thoroughly heard, and understood. The one who fears abandonment feels seen and cared for and reassured that they are special and important and the one who fears being controlled feels true empathy from the other — that their pain when restricted feels like a neglect of their need for space and growth.

Like with the sex example, they both feel a bit of a flexibility in their visions of ideal behavior from the other. Both were, again, feeling a deficit of trust, but responding to it in opposite ways. The anti-AFOS one coped with the powerlessness of potential abandonment by doubling down on control and demanding total emotional exclusivity. The pro-AFOS partner coped with the powerlessness of feeling trapped and uncared for by breaking the rules and seeking emotional support from AFOSs.

Post-empathy however, we would predict that, both partners feeling increased trust, love, and respect from the other, the opposite responses would occur. The pro-AFOS partner may find that, feeling more love and genuine intimacy at home, they have far less of an urge to spend time with AFOSs. And the anti-AFOS partner may find that, feeling secure and reassured in their relationship, that they worry far less about potential infidelity by their partner.

Dis-solving the problems

Again, I’m not saying it’ll always work this way. I’m making this sound easier than it is in most cases. Often, compassion and empathy are so difficult to perform in these situations that a couples counselor is brought in for guidance. These examples given are both very common and thorny issues that tap into our deepest insecurities in relationships.

I’m only pointing out how an initial emphasis on compromise and problem solving can actually exacerbate an already-existing pattern, because every time we go straight to a behavioral suggestion, we are bypassing the fear underlying the disagreement about what is appropriate behavior to begin with. And that can be heard on both sides as a dismissal or minimization of the their needs.

It’s as if we unconsciously think, “You don’t even know why this upsets me, and you’re already telling me what we should do?”

Why we reflexively problem-solve

This is likely a complex topic, but I think the short answer is that that it’s easier, and it sometimes works. Many situations in life don’t need to be dissected emotionally. We disagree on dinner, we throw out a few more options, and soon enough both people say “okay, that works.” Why waste energy and attention on how it feels to not get Vietnamese food when everyone is happy with Indian? If the car is having problems, we take it to a mechanic. If we have a cavity, a dentist knows what to do. Problem-solving often works. So we shouldn’t feel too bad that we instinctively try it in our relationships.

Also, talking about feelings and needs is difficult, especially when they conflict. Who wants to find out that wanting what we want makes our partner feel terrible, as well as find out all the specific nuances of that terribleness?

Plus, it’s tough to communicate those painful feelings in ways that don’t make the other person feel shame. The subtleties of language (“I felt _ when ” rather than “You made me feel ”) matter, and somehow we don’t seem wired to speak all that sensitively when we are feeling hurt.

I don’t think there is really a formula to empathic curiosity either. Curiosity is a state of mind, similar to creativity. Creativity doesn’t have a formula. When our partner is feeling something we don’t relate to, or has a fear that we’ve never had, finding out more about it sometimes feels like feeling around blindly for an unknown object, in the dark. The closest I’ve heard to a formula, is taking turns basically asking “is there more?” and reflecting what the other person says, over and over. Here’s an example. It’s a good exercise to start with, but the empathy ultimately comes from the heart, not from a linear procedure that is carried out in the head.

Empathy and curiosity is often the way to dis-solving problems, rather than problem solving. It’s also an art that gets easier over time.

Dis-solving problems is one of the things I like best about coaching. In my experience it is generally more productive, and more fun, than problem solving.

“The more I am open to the realities in me and in the other person, the less do I find myself wishing to rush in to “fix things.” As I try to listen to myself and the experiencing going on in me, and the more I try to extend that same listening attitude to another person, the more respect I feel for the complex processes of life. So I become less and less inclined to hurry in to fix things, to set goals, to mold people, to manipulate and push them in the way that I would like them to go. I am much more content simply to be myself and to let another person be himself.”

Carl Rogers

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