The 2 Realities of Relationships
There’s a saying … “You can be right. Or you can be in relationship. You get to pick which one.”
I hear my clients in session argue in front of me with comments such as “That’s not what happened” or “I never said that.”
Parts of my coaching are that I notice these patterns, interrupt them, and introduce new relationship skills. One of those skills is an acceptance of your partner’s experiences.
Instead of “That’s not what happened” … there is an opportunity to respond with an understanding for the other’s experience followed by something like “My experience of the situation was different than yours. Would you be willing to listen to what it was like for me?”
Instead of “I never said that” … there is an opportunity to be curious and reply with something like, “That’s what you heard me say? What I recall saying is … ” followed by an honest recollection of my words and tone.
My Personal Experience
It took me many years to really learn and practice this principle in my relationships.
I recall a transformational experience for me: I was sitting with my girlfriend at the time and she was sharing an update about a project that was important to her. All of a sudden she stopped abruptly and said “You don’t believe I can do it, do you? You don’t think I am capable of succeeding …”
I was shocked. Immediately, I started refuting “No, of course not. Why would you think that? Did I say that?”
She replied, “I could tell by the expression on your face. I could see your doubts. I need support from you now. I need you to believe in me.” I was speechless.
This conversation made me feel like she and I were a million miles apart. I thought to myself, “Do I even know this person?” I felt alone. I felt sharp pains in my chest.
I was hurt and puzzled, so I called a friend and asked her if she would role play the conversation with me. At first, I acted out my part and my friend was in the role of my girlfriend. Then we went through it again and I was in the role of my girlfriend. (I imagine this process may sound weird if you don’t have experience using role play techniques. Trust me, they can be incredibly useful.)
When I was in the role of my girlfriend, I imagined some look on my face that could have been interpreted as ‘doubt.’ I began to empathize with her. She was simply sharing her experience. It may not have been ‘perfect’ or the most skillful way of sharing her experience, because she was telling me her guess of what I was thinking, but that was the best she was able to do at that time. Why was I not able to be with what she shared? Why did I take it personally? Why did I hear her experience & needs as criticisms of me?
Why is this important?
Acceptance and respect for differing realities is important because many couples use differences of perceptions to hurt each other:
- Judgment: “Just like you to misinterpret what I said. You don’t even pay attention to me.”
- Diagnosis: “Not surprising that you’d have that negative experience. You have all these screwed up belief systems that color how you interpret what happens.”
- Withdrawal: “I don’t feel safe talking to you about important stuff anymore. You’re just going to misinterpret it anyway.”
To stop hurting each other like this it begins by stopping the judgment, diagnosis, withdrawal, and other unskillful reactions to the other’s experiences. Next, it is important to cultivate acceptance, curiosity, and respect through statements such as:
- “I am hearing you say that your experience was ________ . Did I get that right?”
- “Please tell me more. What did you see or hear that supported that experience?”
- “What I am about to say is really important to me. Would you be willing to say back to me what you heard me say? I want to make really sure that the message I am trying to convey is what you receive.”
- “Would you be willing to hear what my experience was like?”
Another reason this acceptance is important is because there is no way to prove that you’re right. Even if you have video cameras running constantly in every part of your home and you review the footage periodically, it does not change the fact that your partner’s experience was what they experienced.
Another reason is to ask yourself what is behind the desire to be ‘right’ about what happened? Is being right the point of being in relationship? I don’t think so. My experience is that one or both people vying to be ‘right’ is a ‘power play’, because there is power in being the one who decides what the one version of the truth is.
If you think that part of being in relationship is getting to the bottom of who is right and what ‘really’ happened, then those beliefs will inspire an unceasing supply of uncomfortable arguments and plenty of resentment.
Embracing the 2 realities
A critical insight is that there will always be 2 realities in a relationship. Further, another critical insight is that … both are valid!
My girlfriend saw a look on my face. No arguing with that.
She interpreted it as doubt. That’s her interpretation. That’s okay too.
When something lands with me in a way that stimulates strong emotions, such as in this case, it is a message that there are some interpretations and needs behind my emotions. In this case, I felt fear:
- I wanted to be understood. But what if it is not possible to be understood? Then I will be all alone. Panic.
- She wanted me to offer support. Her experience at the time was that she did not feel my support, then that means I am not enough. If I am not enough, then I may be unloveable. Panic.
Self-compassion helped me to gain my composure after being confronted with these insights: Understanding is important to me. It is reasonable that I want to understand my partner and be understood by her. It can feel uncomfortable in these moments of misunderstanding. Acceptance is important to me. It is reasonable to want to be known and accepted by my partner. It can feel uncomfortable in these moments when I think she wants me to be different (in this case, more supportive) than she is experiencing me.
Sensations of fear raised my awareness to my unconscious beliefs. Acknowledging and exploring those underlying (and powerful!) beliefs became part of my work and my growth.
One of my false beliefs was that when two people care for each other, they never misinterpret each other’s behaviors. That’s just dead wrong. It will happen all the time. In fact, it is to be expected and there is nothing inherently wrong with it.
With a more reasonable expectation and greater tolerance for being misunderstood, I would have been able to receive my girlfriend’s feedback and I would have been able to respond more calmly, “No, I don’t have any concerns. Whatever my expression, it was a result of something else. What can I do right now that would feel supportive to you?” My guess is this response would have felt re-connecting to us both, and our conversation would have continued on.
Being in relationship with another person (even in the ‘best’ of relationships!) does not create a ‘hive mind.’ Each of you will always have your own experiences, even of a shared event. It is to be expected. If we allow it, it can serve as some of the ‘juice’ of being in relationship. We can share and clarify with best efforts to try to understand each other.
So why do we get triggered when our experiences differ? Why do we judge the other person for ‘being crazy’?
My experience is the triggering and the judgments arise because of fear. Each of us wants to be known by another. Each of us wants to feel connected. Each of us has some fear that we will not be understood and that situation will be unbearably lonely.
Each of us wants to be accepted as we are and to feel like we are good enough. Each of us wants to be valued for how we show up for our partner.
Fear turns into panic. Panic turns into reaction. A typical reaction is judgment of the other. The judgments create distance. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Recognize and practice
Let’s use another example.
A situation: Your partner says to you in feedback to something you said, “Stop criticizing.” You say to yourself, “I am not criticizing them.”
At that moment, your intention does not matter. There are 2 realities. You have a choice to accept your partner’s experience as one of those realities. Then it’s time to get curious:
“I am hearing you that what I just said felt critical to you. I don’t want you to hear my words as criticisms. Would you be willing to share with me more about what it was that sounded critical to you? What did you hear me say? Was it the words or the tone or something else?”
When you and your partner have different experiences, it is an opportunity to learn about the other person. By learning, you get closer. It is an incremental, beautiful, lifelong process.
My invitation to you is to pay special attention to noticing those moments of different perceptions in your relationship. When they arise, which parts of you embrace them as wonderful differences and opportunities for being curious? Which parts of you feel fear and are uncomfortable with these differences in perspectives? What are the beliefs and needs at the root of your feelings of fear?
What has it been like for you when you and your partner have different experiences of the same conversation or event? What were the details? How did you feel when you heard your partner’s experience? How did you respond? Why? If you felt upset or triggered by it, what opportunity is there to learn about your beliefs and needs? If you became curious, what resources did you draw upon to hold both experiences as valid? If you’d like, please share your personal experiences with others by offering them in the comments on this page.
Important Notes: As with any aspect of human relationships, there are exceptions. What I offer is relevant to the range of ‘typical’ healthy relationships between interdependent consenting adults. There are exceptions to full acceptance and endorsement of another’s experiences in situations such as when a partner is struggling with addictions, or one intentionally lies, manipulates, or withholds information, et cetera. The respect of differences must also be mutual. Differences of perception under special circumstances are not within the scope of what is offered here. They are exceptional circumstances that require additional support and a different set of tactics.