Updated: Feb 25, 2021
Why do we argue more, and more deeply, with those who we are closest to? And why can we find it so hard to listen to the issues brought to us by our loved ones without being drawn into a battle, often the same battle, again and again? I’m going to try to explain this as a counsellor and as a far-from-perfect human being.
Someone once described to me the regular arguments they experienced in their relationship like this.
“It's like two trains heading for a collision. You can see it's going to happen from quite a way off, but it has a momentum you can't stop. When the trains hit each other, it's like all of the carriages are carrying our built up resentment and unresolved disagreements going all the way back, and these just shunt into the front cars, so there's an enormous pile up of anger and bitterness from years ago.”
I think this is a brilliant way of describing relationship conflicts. I wonder if it sounds familiar? I'd add that sometimes it can feel as if the engines driving towards the inevitable smash are actually at the back of the line, pushing, so the trains are being propelled towards collision by past events, rather than being pulled by what is happening in the present. We are often pushed by the force of our emotional history. What should be a small 'coming together', fuelled by a minor misunderstanding becomes a smash because the driving force is way at the back of the train and fuelled by years of not being understood.
When this is the case, how can anyone dispassionately see things from the other person’s point of view? How can you take time to fully understand the contents of the other train and what it is using for fuel when it has just smashed into you? When the chances are you are feeling a little bruised!
Around 80 years ago an American called Carl Rogers started to promote the importance in counselling of Unconditional Positive Regard. He pointed out that it was impossible for him to encourage a client to explore their thoughts and feelings if he wasn’t able to handle whatever they said and still think well of them. He needed to maintain a high regard for them and their potential, no matter what – Unconditional Positive Regard. The ability to do this went hand-in-hand with another of his key aspects of good counselling, empathy. After all, if you find what is being said to you irritating or offensive, or you feel like you are personally attacked, it is pretty difficult to empathise with the person talking to you. But that’s so often what we expect of ourselves and each other in relationships.
It is comparatively easy to accept someone’s experience of the world when you are a third-party with no contradictory view of what is being described. After all, counsellors should have no previous involvement with the client and no contact outside of sessions. They also have their own counselling and supervision from a senior colleague, to ensure their responses to clients aren't influenced by their personal life experiences. This allows them to focus entirely on the issues brought by the client. They should have done everything they can to unload their train and make sure it isn’t heading for collision.
When we are in relationship with someone, as lover, spouse, relative or even friend, we have shared experience: shared history. And we will have our own view of that history, our own set of emotional triggers. It is very often our deep emotional involvement which gets in the way of us responding to each other as ‘grown ups’; that gets in the way of us helping.
I suspect you are already with me, but for example, let’s imagine a young adult reveals they were not happy growing up. How can a parent hear this dispassionately? The emotional response of the parent might be ‘where did I go wrong’ or maybe’ you ungrateful little…’, but it’s unlikely that no trigger will have been pressed. The experience of being a child has a relational flip side; that of being a parent. If you are part of that relationship, you can’t consider one without the other. You can offer unconditional love (you can love someone you are annoyed with), but you can’t really offer unconditional positive regard – however briefly, you aren’t unconditionally on their side! There is a difference between the two and to some extent it’s down to the depth of personal emotional involvement.
Counsellors are required to care for the client and believe in their individuality and desire to develop. They empathise with their experience; they don’t have to love them! And this bit about love is really important, because I believe it is exactly this that makes it so difficult at times to truly hear those who matter to us most. The more we care about people, the more we have invested in our relationship, the harder it is to approach our interactions dispassionately (by definition!)
We have positive regard, we can have it in buckets, but it is unlikely to be unconditional. It would take The Buddha to listen to a loved one's frustrations with experiences which we've actually been part of and not think 'Hold on a minute. That isn't the whole story.' Or even 'what about me.' We may well empathise enormously with the person taking to us, we can imagine ‘walking in their shoes’, but we are at the same time walking in our own shoes … and there’s a good chance that what you are hearing is making them pinch a bit!
I think it’s worth us acknowledging that, whilst we will try to understand the point of view of our loved ones, it is impossible to do this dispassionately… precisely because they are our loved ones. If it matters, what they say will always have an impact on us and we may instinctively (over)react. This, I think, is the reason why we can find ourselves stuck in the same conversation again and again. (It might also be the reason counsellors get asked why, if we are so good at it, we can't simply be more empathetic in our own relationships!)
All of this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever try, but it does mean we should be kind to ourselves and recognise that it can be hard and the result won’t be perfect… and sometimes we might not be the best person to be having that conversation!
Image: Frank Busch on Unsplash