In relationships, understanding—not agreement—is the key.
In employing the word understanding here, I’m not referring to some impersonal, coldly objective comprehension of your partner's—or child’s, parent’s, friend’s, or co-worker’s—viewpoint. Nor is there anything critical or judgmental about it. Rather, it’s used to signify an empathic, open-hearted appreciation of where your significant other is coming from. And such a humane understanding can be present totally independent of your own bias or perspective. It allows the other’s position, however contrary to your own, to co-exist with it—if not quite serenely, at least peacefully and amicably.
However paradoxical it may seem, two opposing viewpoints can be made compatible—despite their undeniable discordance. In situations where actual agreement is unattainable, understanding—and accepting—your inevitable differences can be just about as effective in protecting the harmony so vital to the relationship’s happiness and contentment. And such amity or good will is far more achievable. In fact, it’s precisely through such understanding that so-called “irreconcilable differences” can be reconciled. For once you’ve cultivated the right mindset, your empathic understanding of the other’s differing viewpoints will be one of respect, validation, and support.
Yes, even support—in the sense that this understanding represents a sincere, receptive acknowledgment of your partner’s contrasting position. But it can hardly be overemphasized that such an understanding is possible only if you can successfully fit yourself into the other’s shoes. You need to accurately identify just how they might, legitimately, have arrived at their differing perspective—given, that is, their particular biological make-up, formal and informal learning environment, family conditioning (or indoctrination), and unique experiences.
Although your integrity may not permit you to concur with their position, there’s no reason you can’t recognize its subjective validity—from their own equally sincere, genuine, and authentic viewpoint. This is what’s crucial, for probably nothing is more powerful in your relationship than the desire both of you experience (however unconsciously) to feel sympathetically understood. It’s universal: We all want this reassurance, and unless you’re so evolved that you’re beyond caring how others might perceive your thoughts and feelings, to whatever degree, you need it as well.
Virtually all of us depend on some sort of external confirmation to feel truly comfortable in the world.
But what’s key to grasp here is that as long as you’re not actively refuting (or grimacing at) your partner’s rival point of view, you’re simply admitting to them that you don’t—or can’t—think and feel as they do. In refusing to argue over something that you two can't possibly agree on, you’re acting in a way that protects the all-important friendship and rapport between you. And candidly discussing your differences—which are unavoidable if only because there are just so many things to differ on—hardly needs to compromise your connection. In fact, if you’re only willing to talk about what’s consensual between the two of you, you’ll end up with a pretty superficial, and frankly dishonest, relationship.
Any relationship in which disagreements never occur—or are never given voice to—is a co-dependent, dysfunctional one. It’s a union that operates artificially, by means of exclusion, and at some point it will leave both of you feeling frustrated and misunderstood.
It’s therefore essential to keep in mind that in any close relationship, disagreements are inevitable—and that this isn’t such a bad thing. What makes such dissent so frequently cause distress is that, subliminally, each of us may feel emotionally threatened by it. It’s almost as though your partner’s differing with your position implies their disapproval of you. Just compare how you felt as a child when your parents frowned and wagged their heads when you said something they didn’t like.
As illogical as it may seem, disagreements can be experienced as mini-rejections. Which is why they're apt to be argued about repeatedly—and mindlessly. And when such conflicts become heated, and each of you has regressed to the point that you absolutely have to be right, neither of you may feel you have the “luxury” of validating the other’s viewpoint. In the moment, it can feel there’s way too much at stake to do anything that conciliatory—such accommodation might convey forfeiture, or defeat.
Sadly, when you reach this irrational, highly charged point of no return, each of you becomes more intimately connected to your point of view than to each other. You’ve become so identified with your position that you’ve practically become it. Moreover, if your now-antagonist refuses to confirm the subjective legitimacy of your viewpoint, you’re probably, deep down, going to experience a more general sense of alienation from—or even abandonment by—that person.
In such a disorganized state of mind and emotion, you’ll likely be compelled to mitigate such upsetting feelings by categorically dismissing—or totally invalidating—their perspective. Although there’s virtually no chance you’ll be aware of it, in such conflicts this counterproductive tit-for-tat isn’t coming from the logical adult part of you but the beleaguered, threatened child part.
Still, if even just one of you can voice an empathic understanding of the other’s position, such a vicious cycle can be aborted. And if both of you are willing to see the other’s viewpoint as their equally relative, but just as legitimate, truth—and if you can directly communicate this sympathetic understanding to each other—you can both experience the external confirmation and support so vital to achieving a happy, contented relationship.
Of course, if you could—truthfully—agree with one another on every matter, that would be ideal. But, frankly, that’s impossible, which is why it’s so crucial that both of you make the effort to genuinely appreciate—and open-heartedly accept—the other’s position. That way, a conflict in your viewpoint need not lead to a conflict in your relationship.
To review other posts on relationships that I’ve written for Psychology Today, you might want to check out these links:
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© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.