Arrogance, Empathy, Acceptance, and Balance

During breakfast with Liz yesterday she introduced me to an editor on her current project, noting that she liked him a lot because he took the time to explain to her why he needed and wanted deliveries a certain way.

I responded, "Yeah, it's the same thing in coaching relationships. I tell clients that if you explain to your partner why you want something a certain way, he or she will have a much greater chance of being on board with it. This is why empathy is so important." (Yeah, I have a one track mind sometimes.)

Empathy is one of those ideas that most people know and of which they have some vague definition, yet it's often slanted toward their own experiences and the word sort of lacks a clear and universal meaning. Technically empathy means the ability to understand and embody someone else's experience, especially pertaining to emotion, but I also use it in a looser way to mean understanding where someone is coming from, i.e. what is the meaning they've made in the past that leads to the actions they take in the present. In any relationship, particularly romantic ones, this communication is paramount.

Most of us enter relationships arrogantly, meaning that we have a set of qualities we want in a partner and when we meet someone who fits enough of that list we encourage, often not so gently, her to shift the rest of the way. I think one of the last and most important realizations of young people vis-a-vis romance is that truly no one will ever be everything you think you want in a person (a better question I got from a friend and tremendous money coach is "Does she encourage you to be all the people you want to be?"), and therefore it's important to accept someone you love for who he is and not attempt to change him into something else. (By the way, I use pronouns interchangeably and I alternate to avoid the cumbersome "he or she".) 

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, it's totally obnoxious to believe that I, you, or we have this life thing figured out and therefore we know so much better what's right and wrong or good and bad than this partner we want to change so fervently. Nevertheless, it's hard to love someone for exactly who she is, and it's certainly appropriate to ask our partner for behavior or ways of communicating that we need or want to be different. This is a delicate balance.

An important step to gain balance between A) complete acceptance and B) constant requests of certain changes from and for both partners is this empathy I talked about, when we understand where our partner is coming from. Two of the same outward actions can strike us in two completely different ways depending on our understanding of the situation that created the action. The greater the understanding, the more our reaction to behaviors will be first curiosity and acceptance and second discernment instead of first judgment and then contempt. A lack of empathy creates contempt, and contempt, perhaps more than any other factor, erodes relationships.

To give an example (one I've used before but from the opposite perspective), when Liz and I started dating she would be out and about with her friends and sometimes come over to my place (or back to our apartment when we started living together later on) after the time she originally suggested without telling me about this time change in advance. She'd always call me when she was on her way, but by that time I'd have been worrying for sometimes an hour or so. I asked her to please call me or text me in the future, but she reacted unhappily to this request and asked me to just know that her ETA was an approximation. At that point, to her I was being un-trusting and smothering and to me she was being unreasonable and insensitive. This topic was hard for both of us and caused some conflict--both of our actions frustrated the other.

Later, as we talked about this more and more, I got the opportunity to explain to Liz that an old girlfriend I really loved had cheated on me and I found out about it after a couple days of radio silence. Therefore, anytime I didn't hear from my girlfriend for any amount of time I'd start to freak. It wasn't that I didn't trust her, it was that I had a past trauma that left a scar in me.

She then explained to me that when she and her friends get together it's very important for them to fully devote themselves to the that time because it happens so infrequently. Because of this fact, none of them really look at their phones for the duration of that time. She was thinking about me and missing me, but it was important to her to have a few hours of time where she isn't tied to a device.

For both of us, when we learned these reasons and meanings that lead to the actions, the upset dissipated and understanding and love came in its place. Our ideal desires remained the same--for her to call or text me and for me to give her space while she was with friends--but we also wanted for the other to get the opposing need met, and hence we tried really hard to accommodate it. The action remained the same in both cases, but how it was taken completely shifted, all because we could have empathy for each other where we before could not.