Fights with a partner tend to escalate in a way that fights with, say, a coworker don’t necessarily.
“I’m exhausted,” one person might say. “I worked all day.” “You’re exhausted?” the other person might respond. “I worked all day and then went to pick up two screaming kids!” And so on.
Esther Perel has spent years watching this kind of dialogue unfold. She’s a couples therapist and the author of the bestselling “Mating in Captivity” and the forthcoming “The State of Affairs.”
Perel has found two behaviours that can stop a conflict like this one from spiraling out of control — behaviours that are so powerful she calls them the “saving grace” of any rocky relationship: showing empathy and taking responsibility.
When she visited the Business Insider office in September, Perel said, “There are not many things that are as important in a strained relationship as the ability to show empathy for the experience of the other; to acknowledge what the other person is going through; to validate that the other person is going through this, that it makes sense that they would be feeling this way.”
Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen often enough. Here’s an example. Perel recently came out with an audio series, titled “Where Should We Begin?” in which listeners follow along as Perel counsels a struggling couple. In the first episode, a husband and wife are dealing with the discovery of the husband’s infidelity.
At one point, the wife says that after her husband betrayed her, she asked herself, “What was all that hard work for?” The husband responds quickly: “I mean, I understand how you feel because I felt the same way.”
Perel interjects here and tells the husband to avoid the impulse to “equalise” his experience and his wife’s. Instead, she advises him to “reflect back” using the words, “So what I’m hearing you say is…”
Recent research supports the idea that empathy and understanding are key to navigating conflict successfully in a relationship. In one study, people who talked about a time when they’d clashed with their partner but felt understood were more satisfied with their relationships than people who talked about a time when they clashed but didn’t feel understood.