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Does the United States Need Couples’ Therapy?

Maybe the goal is to live together and come up with something different.

So much of what I read about, hear, and see in the United States today—from the streets to the government—sounds almost exactly like what I’ve been hearing in my office for years.

As a psychologist, I have multiple areas of expertise and one of my favorites is couples’ therapy. I have had many, many couples come to me over the years filled with hurt and anger, painfully contemplating ending an important attachment relationship because they can see no way forward.

My job, as I see it, is not necessarily to keep them together. Instead, I see my job as helping them to really see and understand the other, and to have the experience of feeling both seen and understood themselves. If I can accomplish this, then the couple can truly decide what’s right for them. Not in reaction to feeling hurt, angry, unseen, and misunderstood, but a clear-headed decision from a place of compassion, understanding, and feeling seen.

Samantha Smithstein
Source: Samantha Smithstein

Getting to that place isn’t easy. When both people feel wronged and misunderstood, they naturally dig in their heels. They shout louder and louder (or shut down and become silent) and formulate the best arguments they can in their own efforts to be heard. It takes work to get everyone to slow down and then stop these patterns. To learn new skills so they are both able to speak about how they feel (not what they think or what they think about the other person) and what they need. And even more skills and effort to be able to really listen to the experience of the other and understand it as a valid experience and express it as such.

What essentially makes it hard to do this—besides the lack of skills—is that we want so desperately to feel seen, understood, and validated, and it feels like the other person negates our experience with their own. What we have to do, instead of continuing to argue, is to put our defenses aside, really work to understand the other, validate their experience, and trust that they will do the same.

Initially, it may be that I have to do this for them, so they both can have the experience before trying to do it themselves. I have had couples call me the “universal translator” when they have this experience because they are amazed at how hearing things from me allows them to both feel understood and to understand the other. In my history of doing couples therapy, I have never had a member of a couple feel I have taken sides. Ever. They both trust me because they both feel heard and understood. This is because I truly believe that both members have a real and valid experience that I want to understand deeply. This experience allows them to learn to do that with each other.

In the United States today, so many people feel hurt and angry. They feel unseen and unheard. They feel the “other side” is [corrupt][ignorant][wrong-headed][dangerous] and unrelatable. They shout louder and louder in order to be heard. They listen to news and media outlets that solely validate their feelings and invalidate the “other side” out of desperation to feel validated and heard. They make threats. They set fire to things. They threaten each others’ lives. They shoot each other. Ultimately, so many of us feel disempowered and even powerless.

What if the solution for our country is similar to that of couples’ therapy? What if we forced ourselves—instead of getting louder and angrier and looking for validation within our own echo chambers—to actually listen, understand, and validate the “other side?” To really listen to what was being said, put aside our lack of trust and fears, and validate them. To try to deeply understand why they feel the way they do, and what they really need and want. And what if they did the same for us?

Of course, this can’t always work. Some people suffer from disorders that make it too difficult, if not impossible, for them to have empathy for others. But in my experience, the majority of people are, in fact, capable of it, given the effort, skills, and opportunity. Recently I’ve had two experiences on a journalistic/social media platform where I expressed a different perspective than the other person. Their initial response to me could have easily turned it into yet another ugly social media fight, but instead, after I validated what they were saying and stated my own thoughts gently, it didn’t. Instead, an opening between us—and to other ideas—happened.

I don’t want to oversimplify. The problems in our society and culture run deep. They aren’t just about an argument about a concept on social media (although those concepts were pretty deep). Our problems are economic, educational, and historical. They are about addiction and trauma, and about values, beliefs, and lived experiences. I get that. I also get that we may not come to agreement on things. And we may decide that we don’t share some of the same values so we don’t want to necessarily live in the same house (or community).

But maybe agreement is not necessarily the goal. Maybe the goal is that we can live together and learn from each other and creatively come up with something different. Maybe it’s that we stop feeling so hurt and angry. That we can stop shouting. Perhaps we may feel empathy and compassion for people we might not have thought we could. And we might even find that we do, actually, share some of the same values and want and need some of the same things. Perhaps even, if we afford the other dignity and respect, we might even find solutions that work for all of us.

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