In the geometry of the committed relationship, the shortest distance between two points is empathy. Yes, empathy – the dawning realization that somebody’s perspective or emotional experience is different from my own. Between my wife Marcia and I, our most convoluted and irreconcilable discussions all have one thing in common, we don’t get each other. Nor do we seem to want to get each other. I want Marcia to get me, to relent and say, “Oh, yes you are so right Brian. How could I have been so off base in my thinking?”
In some secret place inside my brain, I just want Marcia to see the world through my eyes, without my having to say a word. I want her to notice the things I do for us, to appreciate my finer qualities, to be tenderly tolerant of my shortcomings, and to never, ever complain. In other words, I want her to be hyper-aware of me in all the positive ways while discreetly overlooking the more ignoble aspects of my personhood. In this part of my brain there really is no room for Marcia to have her own experiences, needs, and ways of seeing things.
Have you ever had the kind of dispute where you are just incredulous about how wrong your partner’s memory is of the events at the heart of the disagreement? One of our fights over the years involves, at the center of the storm, a dispute over how often we have been on vacation. Marcia’s lock-down position has been “We never go on vacation, without it being attached to our work!” I have countered with “What do you mean! We’ve gone here, and here, and here.” In these kinds of arguments folks, the devil’s in the details. Our brains like to recall that which bolsters our position in any given conflict while simultaneously dismissing or minimizing anything that simply doesn’t jibe.
Thus, for me, I remember and emphasize every trip we ever took, and choose not to see any validity in Marcia’s position. She does the same. Like the couple who argue that A. “You never put the toilet seat down” or, B. “I always put the seat down,” we each remember that which reinforces our position and tidily dismiss all else. This difference of perspective thrives in an environment devoid of empathy.
When we release the brains predilection to be right, the distance between us shrinks. For me empathy means I bring my heart into the discussion. Without heart, our brains are doing battle over who is more accurately depicting the truth. Once I invite my heart into our repartee it is a game changer. I listen to Marcia’s intent — what she is driving at. And then the message is quite clear. She wants to have more pleasure, more play in our lives. Though I know her argument is tinged with blame, I also feel what she is trying to do. She wants me to lighten up and be more adventurous. This is, of course, a good thing.
Behind Marcia’s outward display of dissatisfaction is desire. Empathy allows me to notice her desire. I get it, I get her. She, in turn, gets that I can be playful, adventurous and open to more novelty in our lives. Empathy often begins, for us, when we step back from the words and simply feel what is happening both within ourselves and the other. It informs us what is really inside the fight to be right. Our brains want to be right, our hearts want to be seen, appreciated, understood, and most of all loved.
The fringe benefit of empathy is that I get to see myself more compassionately. When Marcia reminds me that our lives have become too serious, as I feel her desire for more play, I recognize that I can be a stick-in-the-mud. But this realization is no longer saturated with self judgment. Yes, I have a place in me that has difficulty indulging. I can make worry my life companion. Because I grew up with a fearful mother and a father who (I know now) fretted over how we were ever going to make ends meet, relaxation doesn’t come easily for me. In an environment dominated by fear and worry, my brain stomps all over my heart and empathy is unreachable.
Enter the heart and all of a sudden Marcia becomes a real three dimensional human being. Empathy does not mean I agree with her, but that I experience her. She misses me when I go robotic. She is fearful of her own serious and worrisome side, she’s sometimes looking to me to give her what she wrestles with giving to herself. I get her. Hey honey, I know you are reading this, let’s go for a bike ride!