Around 50% of my practice is working with couples (or other partnered systems), and I am often faced with the difficulty so many folks struggle with in understanding each other. Especially after our last election, I can’t help but see striking similarities between the ways that folks bunker down and become defensive and antagonistic in their relationship with the current state of affairs in our society post-election. Regardless of where someone stands politically (and in my clinical work, I try to stay out of politics), one thing is clear– if you find two folks who each voted for the two different candidates, you’ll find that they are living in two very different realities.
This is often the case, but on a more micro level, with the couples I see in my practice. Both individuals are so wrapped up in their own subjective reality, that they have no room left for understanding the subjective reality of their partner. As a result, their relationship is filled with frustrations, disappointments, and unnecessary conflicts over who is right or wrong. Instead of working together as allies, these folks are engaging in a battle over realities, sparring to see whose reality will come out on top and victorious. In the end, no one wins. A battle between realities is a zero sum game, in which one individual needs to win while the other loses. However, this only means that everyone loses, since a relationship filled with a ledger of wins and losses is a most unhappy relationship.
Some of the biggest signs of progress (and most rewarding times for me as a therapist) are when I finally start to see the light bulb go on and one or both partners finally starts to “get it,” to understand that they are in a relationship with another human being that has different thoughts, feelings, and ideas, rather than just an attractive accessory or sex partner. This may sound harsh, but the most dysfunctional relationships I’ve seen have involved individuals that had no sense of the mental landscape of their partner. Once this mental map of their partner has been established, I have found that changes within the relationship can happen very rapidly. But before the partners have finally been able to truly understand each other’s subjective experience, the relationship often finds itself stuck, merely replaying the same tired old arguments and themes over and over again.
So, how do I help individuals to bridge their differences? First, I need to help them understand that they are not involved in a competition. Take a look at my earlier article about confiding communication. If a couple is extremely emotionally volatile, my first move is to calm them down and get them back to baseline. Next, I need to help them take a look at their own processes and shift from an antagonistic mindset to one of collaboration. This is often very difficult, as by the time many couples have reached me, they have become so mistrustful and reactive to each other, that in many ways it feels like they are in a relationship with their enemy rather than with a friend. Part of this is because they have been competing for preeminence of whose reality is going to win for so long, that their partner has for all intents and purposes truly become a competitor. Competing realities is the number one problem I see in relationship counseling and one of the most toxic and hardest to overcome. That’s because somewhere along the line both people have to agree to put down their arms and give up trying to be right… and trying to always win.
A big part of my job is psycho education, in the sense that I am teaching individuals psychological skills that they can use to improve themselves. To that end, I often spend time helping people to notice their counterproductive need to control their partner’s reality. Fighting about who’s right, trying to prove who’s correct, and out-dueling the other person for a monopoly on truth are all attempts to control the other individual’s reality. Somewhere along the line, both people have to understand that their desire for control is destroying the relationship. Rather, my goal is to help the couple get to a place where they can envision more than one reality co-existing at one time. By denying each other’s reality, they are in fact destroying any ability for the relationship to create a shared reality. Instead, they need to learn they can co-create a larger reality that encompasses both points of view. In this way, they then share a common reality as a couple, but distinct realities as individuals. And this is how high functioning relationships operate.
What does this look like on a practical level? First, each partner prioritizes the integrity and well-being of the relationship. If fighting for who’s right will undermine the relationship, that is a fight not worth having. Instead, people have conversations such as the following, “Look, I know that being social on the weekends is very important to you, but it’s just not a priority for me. It doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong, maybe we can find a way to meet in the middle.” Dysfunctional couples, on the other hand, blow up quickly and turn things personal. They might say “This is the second time this month you didn’t want to go out, why are you so antisocial, don’t you like my friends?” This is a recipe for disaster. Taking a step back to understand this dynamic, what we are observing here are individuals that are poorly differentiated (see my article on this here) and can’t tolerate the difference in their partner, so instead they try to control them by trying to domineer their reality. Not only is this an unsuccessful approach because it invalidates the partner and creates hostility, but it also obfuscates the larger problems in the relationship by focusing on the smaller details that are merely symptoms of the larger systemic issues.
I’ll cut this discussion short here. But in summation, many problems in relationships are due to a complete lack of understanding, or even intolerance, of the other person’s reality and the subsequent power struggles for reality supremacy that follow. Many of these struggles play out in our nation on a macro level. The good news is that there is a way forward. By dropping our need to win or be right at all costs, and instead allowing space for each other’s reality, we can refocus on the larger goal of keeping the relationship happy and vital, instead of undermining it with impotent displays of power and dominance.