First and Foremost (Part One)If I possessed a magical powder that I could sprinkle upon the heads of every well-intended couple seeking a closer, more harmonious, satisfying relationship, what sorcery would those particles spin? Two things. They would first give each person the ability to hold their partner’s point of view as equally valid to their own. Secondly, they would impart the capability to catch oneself when emotionally escalated, to disengage, and once calm, return and engage in effective dialogue.
Two things. That’s all. Doesn’t it sound ridiculously simple?
It is anything but.
The concept of two equally-valid, subjective realities (or points of view) emerged from the more-than four decades of in-depth research into marriages by John Gottman and his collaborators. This is what the Masters of Marriage model.
In much of our world, there is “truth” and “untruth”: in our judicial system, in the workplace, in accounting, in our schools. There is a right answer, a wrong answer. The answer to this mathematical equation is this, not that. I got a particular grant in on time or I didn’t; homework is turned in or it’s not; the defendant is decreed guilty or he’s innocent. In most spheres of our world, there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way.
Yet to transfer this approach to our love relationship is destructive. It makes one person “right” and the other person’s experience and point of view “wrong”. This approach is toxic to a loving relationship.
The skill set required to promote and sustain a viable, loving relationship is not the same set of skills needed to build a house, to teach a class of 3rd graders, or to argue well in a courtroom.
Honoring two equally-valid subjective realities in these domains would be chaotic and ineffective. There is a place for hierarchy of power, for clearly-defined rules of conduct, enforced by someone in charge. A sound, resilient, harmonious relationship, on the other hand, is built upon a hefty underpinning of emotional trust and safety between two equals.
Emotional closeness thrives in an environment where both people experience that their thoughts and feelings matter to their partner. Note that I’m saying ‘matter‘ not ‘agreeing’: we do not have to agree with one another to communicate that we care about each other’s experience and point of view.
A tool I offer my clients to aid them in learning this skill that you are free to download: Loving Speech/Deep Listening.
This is what the “masters of marriage” model for us. To truly adopt this approach is like offering your love relationship a life-enhancing elixir. One of my clients calls it, “the magic sauce.”
Drop Persuasion— it simply does not work
Not when we care deeply about a topic and our points of view differ.
If you repeatedly try and convince me that the way you see an interaction between us is the “right” way, and the way I perceive it is “wrong,” I will probably verbally wrestle with you, trying to convince you that you’ve got it all wrong. That indeed my way, my perception of the interaction, is the right way. We will go round and round, trying to convince one another, using sound, astute and persuasive reasoning. At first. But over time, such discussions can, and usually do, become harsh, ugly, and protracted. Even brutal. These sorts of discussions can leave us feeling like our partner doesn’t even like us; deflated, dejected, and lonely.
A relationship in this mode is spinning its wheels, creating deeper and deeper ruts between the two parties, getting absolutely nowhere.
With this sort of “I’m right, you’ve got it wrong—here, let me convince you” approach, over time one of us will likely close down to the other.
It will no longer be safe for you to tell me what you think or feel. Perhaps you’ll withdraw; perhaps I’ll blow up now and then, seemingly hysterical. Perhaps one of us will turn elsewhere, developing an emotional closeness with someone who listens and validates our point of view. Over time, we become more and more removed, distant. Perhaps rationalizing, “This is just what happens after so-and-so many years of marriage.”
Not true. It does not have to be that way.
Feeling unsafe to speak one’s thoughts and feelings in a relationship is like laying a swarm of termites to a home: for years and from afar, the house can appear solid, admirable, even indestructible. But by the time the couple realizes there is a problem, the damage is often devastating. Sometimes, it is too late.
Honoring—not simply listening, but truly honoring—your partner’s point of view as equally valid is indeed a challenge. But it is well worth the effort as it creates the strongest foundation possible for a secure relational home.
A foundation that affords the safety, the closeness, and the intimacy we all yearn for.