“It’s wonderful to be loved, but it’s profound to be understood.”
– Ellen DeGeneres
Whether you and your partner have been dating 10 months or 10 years, it is probable that both of you do not successfully communicate the messages you always intend to communicate to one another 100% of the time. This is because you are two separate and imperfect human beings who can walk away with highly dissimilar emotional experiences within the same circumstance. As close as you may be, and as long as you may have been together, you can still view the same tv show very differently, the same restaurant very differently, and the same disagreement very differently.
While it is preferable that your partner always agrees with your perspective, you and your partner do not have to agree with one another in order to learn how to hear and understand that which is upsetting the other.
In other words, by listening to your partner’s emotional experience, you can disagree with what they are saying, but still express that you have heard them, you understand their point of view, and you want to work things out with them to help improve their experience within the relationship. Here is an example of a REBT-Based Couples Counseling exercise, inspired by multiple couples counseling sessions I have had with my clients:
Partner 1: I do not believe you actually care about how stressed I am after work. I have told you so many times that my love languages are quality time and physical touch! I just want you to lay on the couch with me after work and rub my back, my feet, my shoulders…. I want you to touch me, not in a sexual way, but in a loving way, because you care that I am stressed. I want you to be there for me and just listen. Let me vent to you. I don’t want to have to be positive all the time, even though I know that is what you want. In some ways, I just feel Betrayed by you. I know you haven’t cheated on me, but there are other promises you made to me when we got married, like really being there for me emotionally, and I just do not think you have actually kept those promises.
Counselor: Okay, now that we heard a specific scenario that is upsetting for Partner 1, I want to ask you (Partner 2) to share with us what you heard. Whether you agree with these statements or not, I want to see if you truly understand what is troubling her?
Partner 2 (to counselor): Yes, I do. I would be lying if I said that I agree with everything she said, but I definitely heard her.
Partner 2 (to Partner 1): You are upset because you believe I don’t care that you’re stressed after work. I do care, but I understand that you do not believe that. You have told me we speak different love languages. You have told me before that my love language is about acts of service, but that you want more quality time and physical touch. I have heard you say that many times, and even though I think I am making somewhat of an effort to do that stuff more for you, you do not feel like I am making an effort, or at least enough of an effort. Even though I have not cheated on you, you still feel betrayed by me, because you do not feel effort on my end to be there for you when you are very stressed. You feel like you have to be positive around me all the time.
Counselor to Partner 1: How did she do? Does she understand what is upsetting you, despite not entirely agreeing with you?
Partner 1 (to counselor): Yeah, I think so. I mean, it sounds like she does. I have told her these things before and not much changes, so I don’t know why this will be different, but today she did seem to hear me, and not make everything she says about disagreeing with me. I just want her to admit she doesn’t really care about helping to feel less stressed after work.
Counselor (to Partner 2): Did you grasp what she just said? Do you understand what is upsetting her? When you answer, make sure you speak directly to her.
Partner 2: Yes, I understand you. You want me to actually make the changes that you have asked me to make for a long time, though I have not really made them.
Partner 1: Right. At least you admit you haven’t made them.
Partner 2: No, I haven’t. But you also said you want me to admit that I don’t care about helping you to feel less stressed.
Partner 1: Right.
Partner 2: I understand you feel that way. I honestly do not agree with you, but I want to work this out with you, so that we can get to a point where you believe that I care, because I do.
This dialogue is similar to many that have transpired within my office, generally after I have asked a couple to take turns listening to one another speak about a situation within the relationship that is upsetting to one or both of them. Once one partner shares their perspective, the other will repeat what they have heard, and this is done until the first partner believes the second partner has truly heard and understood them. Then they switch roles.
This particular scenario demonstrates that Partner 2 comes to realize she does not have to entirely agree with Partner 1 to hear and understand her emotional experience (that which is upsetting to her). Partner 2 also shows Partner 1 that she is motivated to work with her to improve their relationship through developing more effective problem-solving and Self-Help Strategies to strengthen their ability to understand one another, as well as to have disagreements in a functional, adaptive, and empathetic way that do not result in unhelpful behaviors such as yelling, insulting, and avoiding one another. This begins with taking Emotional & Behavioral Responsibility for your own feelings and behaviors.
If you and your partner are looking to improve communication within your relationship, you can learn more about this exercise, as well as other strategies in my article on: 3 REBT Exercises To Stop Irrational Thinking Before It Results In An Argument!