As a relationship therapist, I am often asked: “What's the biggest problem couples face?” The easy answers are money and sex, but neither would be exactly true, or at least not what has walked into my office or my life. The most common problem I see in intimate partnerships is what I call the battle for empathy.
Paula tells Jon that she’s upset and hurt by something he said, a way he responded to her opinion on a family matter. She asks if, in the future, he could say that same thing with an attitude of kindness and/or curiosity and not be so critical, simply because her opinion differs from his. Jon reacts to Paula’s feelings and the request by aggressively inquiring why he should offer her kindness and curiosity when last month she had shut down his experience over a different family matter and treated him unkindly. Paula then attacks back, explaining why she deserved to behave the way she did in the interaction last month, and why her response last month was a reaction to what he did two months ago, which she believes was unkind and aggressive. Jon then barks that he was entitled to his behavior two months ago, because of the unkind and critical thing she did three months ago…and back in time it goes, to a seemingly unreachable place before the hurting began.
Couples do this all the time. They fight over who’s deserving of empathy, whose experience should get to matter, whose hurt should be taken care of, and whose experience should be validated. Often, partners refuse to offer empathy to each other because they feel that to do so would mean admitting they are to blame, thus giving up the chance to receive empathy and validation for their own experience. Boiled down, if I care about how my words hurt you, then I’m admitting that I'm to blame for causing you that pain. And perhaps even more important, the truth of why I said those words, or more accurately why I was entitled to say those words, will never be validated or receive its own empathy. Empathy for you effectively cancels out empathy for me.
As hurt and resentment accumulate in a relationship, it becomes harder and harder to empathize with your partner’s experience, because you have so much unheard and uncared-for pain of your own. When too much unattended pain is allowed to sedimentate between people, it can be nearly impossible to listen to, much less care about, each other's experience. Over time, unhealed wounds create a relationship in which there’s no space left to be heard, and no place where some injustice or hurt from the past doesn't disqualify your right to kindness and support — which just happen to be the essential components of intimacy.
For this reason and many others, resentment is the most toxic of all emotions to an intimate relationship.
So what is to be done if you’ve been in a relationship for some time, and hurts have built up and led to resentment and unresolved anger and pain? Is there hope for empathy to regain a foothold in your relationship, so that true intimacy can begin flourishing once again? What is the way forward when it feels like there is too much toxic water under the bridge, too much wreckage under your feet, to find your way back to a loving bond? When the past is a minefield, can the present become peaceful ground?
If you asked me if it’s possible, if there’s hope for empathy to re-emerge in your relationship, even when resentment abounds, the answer is: probably. But if you asked me whether there are ways to try and rebuild the empathic bond in your relationship, I would answer with a resounding yes. Yes, you can try. And yes, the only way you can know if what’s probable can become possible is to name it as a problem and give it your very best effort. One thing you can know for sure is that if you don’t try to address the resentment, it won’t go away by itself. Resentment is a cancer that metastasizes and eventually makes it impossible for a healthy relationship to survive.
So what to do? I suggest, first, that couples set an intention together to recreate empathy in their relationship, because it helps to start with a conscious decision that’s named. Perhaps both of you want to deepen the intimacy or trust, or perhaps just ease the resentment. The intention can be different for each of you, but what’s important is that there’s an agreed-upon desire and a willingness to bring attention to this issue. Sometimes one partner is not willing to set such an intention, often because of precisely the resentment that’s being addressed. Even if that’s the case, you can set an intention on your own; that’s not ideal, but it can still bring positive results.
Once an intention has been named, I recommend making a deal to officially press the restart button on your relationship. You can ritualize/celebrate this relationship restart date as perhaps a new anniversary — the day you committed to begin again without the poisons of the past. It’s important that you mark this restart date in some tangible way that makes it real and sacred. A restart date means that as of a certain day and time, you are beginning again, so that when you express your feelings to your partner, those feelings matter simply because they exist and cannot be invalidated because of something that happened in the past. Pressing the restart button means you get a new point zero, a point at which you are both innocent and entitled to kindness and support; a clean slate. This one step, albeit manufactured, if agreed upon and followed, can open up a brand-new field in which to re-meet, be loving, and take care of each other again.
Along with this, I recommend beginning a new way of communicating with each other — the taking turns way. Taking turns means when one partner brings upset or anything difficult or less than positive to the other, she is heard and understood fully, without rebuttal. The experience of the other partner, what we might say caused him (or her) to behave in the way he did (which created the upset), is then held for the next day. The next day, if he desires, he expresses his experience of what his partner presented or something else entirely. And once again, he presents with no rebuttal on her part.
While I am suggesting an imposed way of communicating around difficult issues which can feel cumbersome, this process can also encourage non-defensive listening and even empathy. It is designed to address resentments in a safe way, as soon as they arise, to prevent them from crystallizing into a new field of resentment. Because you know that your time to tell your "side of the story" is not coming until tomorrow, you are more able to hear, listen, and be present for your partner’s experience. In a strange way, you can relax, since you don't need to try to "win" the argument. You can also try mirroring back to your partner, through words, what you are hearing her say and feel. And do this mirroring until she feels that you have correctly “gotten” her experience. Being able to hear your partner without defending yourself (since it’s against the rules for now) can lessen the chances that the exchange will end up feeding new resentments. Taking turns at expressing your experience, knowing that you will get to be listened to, without rebuttal, that there will be a guaranteed safe place for your experience to be heard, will ease your anxiety, anger, desperation, and despair. It will also vastly improve the possibility of building a newly empathic bond. By communicating one at a time (with a breathing and sleeping break in between), at least for a while, you are creating a garden for kindness, curiosity, and support — the defining aspects of intimacy — to at least have a chance to take root and hopefully grow.
Resentment is poison to a relationship. It kills off the yummiest part of intimacy — namely, empathy. The most delicious part of a partnership, as I have witnessed and lived it, is the opportunity to receive and give empathy, to really feel it coming in and going out. If your relationship is suffering from resentment, or if you are suffering with and from resentment, try these three suggestions and see what happens. It can’t hurt, and it might help — and the process of trying will contain its own riches. Happy gardening.
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