A frequent challenge among many couples arises when one is feeling very low, in a depressed or negative state that inevitably affects the other partner. The “feeling low” partner may feel a great need to share his/her intense emotions or to have them recognized and validated. The other partner may be worn down by the negativity; unable to identify (and commiserate) with the other’s intense emotions; or possibly resentful of what feels like unfair blame and criticism.
Why is it so hard to understand our partners? Why do they continue to astound us with their feelings, reactions and desires, even decades down the road? Why is understanding so elusive?
In his 2014 book Mindwise, writer, scientist and (University of Chicago) behavioral psychologist Nicholas Epley explores the ways in which we routinely make inferences about what others think, believe, feel, or want, and in so doing, routinely misunderstand them.
Without purporting to have any formal education in what makes a relationship thrive, he recently published a book (If You’re in My Office, It’s Already Too Late: A Divorce Lawyer’s Guide to Staying Together) in which he shares what he has observed makes relationships fall apart irretrievably.
Brain science supports anecdotal evidence that compassion is infinitely more effective in de-escalating conflict and nurturing intimacy than are cool logic and rational argument. The following tactics are generally less than successful in trying to get the understanding and caring we need from our partner:
When our partner snaps at us, s/he is generally sending us a distress signal. That distress may be connected to an immediate need that is not being met; to a sense of being overwhelmed; to a feeling of inadequacy or of being misunderstood; or even to an old (painful or uncomfortable) family-of-origin dynamic or trauma that is being triggered.