Since launching my psychotherapy practice, I have had the privilege to work with a growing number of couples. In the process, I continue to develop a list of insights regarding couple’s conflict and repair.

In this article, I’d like to share with you two insights that stand out for me from my work in couples therapy. These insights are also transferable to relationships between siblings, friends, or business partners.

Insight #1: The Gaps Between Stories Are Often Grand Canyons.

We see things not as they are, but as we are.
-Unknown

In my clinical work, I often find that each party’s story is significantly different from that of their partner’s. Sometimes, the couple’s stories are so dramatically different that I suspect one of them might be acting.

The truth is, there is no acting taking place. Both parties are sincerely conveying what they are seeing and feeling. So how could the gap be so big?

Based on my observation, the answer lies in their perspectives. Despite their physical proximity, couples often hold perspectives that are fixed at extreme opposite poles.

A study by Epley & Caruso (2004) found that people often guess what their partner is thinking by starting with their own views, and then slightly adjusting. However, their adjustment isn’t always accurate – especially under stress – leading to a misunderstanding of their partner’s true perspective.

In my opinion, if a couple experiences these perspective gaps on a long-term basis, they will find it challenging to live in peace, much less happiness.

Yet there is lots of hope for couples who are able to reduce or eliminate these gaps; one of the keys to achieving this is for each party to see, and embody, the other’s perspective.

I use several interventions to promote embodying of the other’s perspective.

One of these I call “Role Reversal”: I ask each party to pretend to be the other, and speak as faithfully as possible from that perspective. This intervention almost always builds new perspective for the party who is reversing roles with their partner, while giving the other party the comfort of knowing that their partner understands their position.

Insight #2: Communication Takes Place Through Secondary Emotions.

I sat with my anger long enough until she told me her real name was grief.
-C.S. Lewis

In my clinical work, I often find that one or both members of the couple will try to persuade me that they are right and the other is wrong. Or that they enjoy “information superiority”; that is, if the other party could just possess the same information that they do, everything would be fine.

Couples say things such as:

  • “You see what he just said? It’s obvious he doesn’t get it! And that’s why we are here.”
  • “She is too sensitive. If she could just relax and have a positive perspective, we would be fine.”

One of the questions I always ask the other party is: What role are you playing in their persistent lack of understanding?

The response to that is usually confusion: “I don’t believe I’m playing any role in my partner’s problems.”

In my experience working with couples, I can confirm this: all of us play a role – whether active or passive – in our partners’ distress.

And therein lies a mind-blowing fact: you will almost never experience repair and growth with your partner by proving that you are right, or that you possess superior information.

In my experience, you will achieve repair and growth only when you make sense of your partner’s mental and emotional map, and connect with them there.

One of the key tools I used to help couples make sense of their partners’ maps is called Communication via Primary Emotions. You can read more about primary emotions in this article or listen to my podcast episode on emotions here.

Next Steps

It’s important to note that every couple’s journey through conflict is unique. The dynamics of each relationship are shaped by many factors: personal histories, communication styles, individual emotional processes, and external stressors.

To that end, the insights I shared above only as a starting point for exploring couples conflict and repair.

If you are experiencing relationship conflict, I recommend contacting a couples therapist in your area (you can also search for a couples counsellor or a marriage counsellor).

I hope you find this helpful.

Tom Skotidas is a Psychotherapist and the director of Intermind. He helps individuals, couples, and families overcome their mental health and relationship challenges. Tom is also a Workplace Psychotherapist and Mental Health Educator.

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