Relationships are not hard.
(A deeply satisfying connection over time is.)
In many ways, being alone is simpler. Consciously or not, when we partner with another human, we agree to take on their preferences, histories, values, and daily experiences of their human vulnerabilities. Not just the joys, not just the rewards, not just the fun parts we like. It’s the same with parenting, but more on that later.
Two different nervous systems are more complex than one, and in an intimate partnership, when the love drugs of infatuation wear off (and they will), these differences emerge in little and big ways. Over time—when we do not know how to work out our confusion, conflicts, and differences—the misunderstandings, unresolved hurt, and disconnection erode our closest relationships.
Living in chronic, low-level stress or high-level conflict, ill repair, or disconnection takes a toll on our physical and emotional health. Learning to understand and skillfully resolve differences in our closest relationships could be the most important investment we make in our futures.
According to one of the longest-running studies on adult development, connected relationships are the single most accurate predictor for long-term health and well-being.
The ability to navigate our differences in the midst of interpersonal challenges depends largely on our capacity to do several key things simultaneously.
We must recognize and be with our own difficult emotions, and then drop any need to defend, while caring about our loved one’s experience and attempting to make sense of it.
What do you know about this person? What is important to them? What do they value? What happens when they feel this way? What does it remind them of? What is making sense to you about them?
All at the same time.
Brené Brown defines empathy “as feeling with another person.” To genuinely feel with another, we must cultivate our ability to be with our own experience. One path to becoming a friend to ourselves, or practicing loving-kindness, is explored in the Buddhist virtue of maitri. From this place of affectionate awareness and care for ourselves, we can cultivate curiosity and begin to make friends with another person’s experience despite our differences.
Next time you are bumping up against the sheer difficulty of another person, try these four steps to move toward understanding and connection:
1. Breathe—welcome and befriend every part of yourself. Notice your own experience, feelings, and sensations.
2. You don’t need to agree with them to understand them. Put down your armor and sword—drop any defense.
3. Make sense. What do you know about their wants, needs, histories? What do you know about their experience? Imagine what it’s like for this person in front of you.
4. Connect the dots. Reflect back on what you see and hear, what you imagine they are feeling, and why this makes sense to you. Then ask for more, “Is that right? What am I missing?”
Without the need to agree or be right, we can use our abilities to be present and curious to understand each other in a way that instantly builds a deeper connection.
And this is good for all of us.