As a couples therapist, I am often asked “What's the biggest problem couples face?” The easy answer is money or sex, but neither would be exactly true. The most common problem I see in intimate partnerships is what I call the battle for empathy.
Paula tells Jon that she’s upset and hurt by something he said, a way he responded to her opinion on a family matter. She asks if, in the future, he could say that same thing with an attitude of kindness or curiosity and not be so critical, simply because her opinion differs from his. Jon reacts to Paula’s request by aggressively questioning why he should offer her kindness or curiosity when last week she had shut down his experience over a different family matter and treated him unkindly. Paula then attacks back, explaining why she deserved to behave the way she did in that interaction, and why her response was a reaction to what he did two months ago, which she believes was unkind and aggressive. Jon then barks that he was entitled to his behavior two months ago, because of the unkind and critical thing she did six months ago…and back in time they go, to a seemingly unreachable place before the hurting began.
This is what we do in relationship. We fight over who’s deserving of empathy, whose experience should get to matter, whose hurt should be taken care of, and whose experience should be validated. We fight over who's right and wrong; who's to blame and who's innocent. Often, partners refuse to offer empathy to each other because they feel that to do so would mean admitting to being guilty, which means giving up the chance to receive empathy and validation for their own experience. Boiled down, if I care about how I hurt you, then my truth, what I experienced that led me to say those words to you, will never be validated or receive its own empathy. Empathy for you effectively cancels out empathy for me.
As hurt and resentment accumulate in a relationship, it becomes harder and harder to empathize with your partner’s experience, because you have so much unheard and uncared-for pain of your own. When too much unattended pain is allowed to sedimentize between people, it can be nearly impossible to listen to, much less care about, each other's experience. Over time, unhealed wounds create a relationship in which there’s no space to be heard, and no place where some injustice or hurt from the past doesn't disqualify your right to kindness and support.
So, what is to be done if you’ve been in a relationship for some time, and hurts have built up and led to river of resentment and unresolved anger and pain? Is there hope for empathy to regain a foothold in your relationship, so that true intimacy can begin flourishing once again? What is the way forward when it feels like there is too much toxic water under the bridge, too much wreckage under your feet, to find your way back to a loving bond?
If you asked me whether there’s hope for empathy to re-emerge in your relationship when resentment is rampant, the answer is...probably. But if you asked me whether there are ways to try and rebuild the empathic bond in your relationship, I would answer with a resounding yes. Yes, you can try. And yes, the only way you can know if what’s probable can become possible is to name it as a problem and give it your very best effort. One thing you can know for sure is that if you don’t try to address the resentment, it won’t go away by itself. Resentment is a cancer that metastasizes and eventually makes it impossible for a healthy relationship to survive.
It's important for you and your partner to start with a conscious choice, to set (and name) an intention to recreate empathy in your relationship. Perhaps you want to deepen the intimacy or trust, or perhaps just ease the anger and conflict. The intention can be slightly different for each of you, but what’s important is that there’s an agreed-upon wish and willingness to bring attention to this issue. Sometimes one partner is not willing to set such an intention, precisely because of the resentment that’s present. But even if that’s the case, you can set an intention on your own; that’s not ideal, but it can still bring positive results.
Once an intention has been named, make a deal to officially press the restart button on your relationship. You can ritualize/celebrate this restart date as perhaps a new anniversary — the day you committed to begin again without the poisons of the past. It’s important that you mark this restart date in some tangible way that makes it real and sacred. A restart date means that as of a certain day and time, you are beginning again, so that when you express your feelings to your partner, those feelings matter simply because they exist and cannot be invalidated because of something that happened in the past. Pressing the restart button means you get a new point zero, a point at which you are both innocent and entitled to kindness and support; a clean slate. This one step, albeit manufactured, if agreed upon and followed, can open up a brand-new field in which to re-meet, be loving, and take care of each other again.
At the same time, initiate a new way of communicating with each other — the taking turns way. Taking turns means that when one partner brings something difficult to the other, she is heard and understood without rebuttal or interpretation. The experience of the other partner, what we might say caused him (or her) to behave in the way he did (which created the upset), is then held for the next day. The next day, if he desires, he expresses his experience of what his partner presented or something else entirely. And once again, he presents with no rebuttal on her part.
While this is an imposed way of communicating around difficult issues which may feel awkward, the process encourages non-defensive listening. It is designed to address resentments in a safe way, as soon as they arise, to prevent them from crystallizing into a new field of resentment. Because you know that your time to tell your side of the story is not coming until tomorrow, you are more able to hear, listen, and be present for your partner’s experience. In a strange way, you can relax, since you don't need to try to win the argument and prove you're right. You can also try mirroring back what you are hearing your partner say and feel. Do this mirroring until she feels that you have correctly “gotten” her experience. Being able to hear your partner without defending yourself (since it’s against the rules for now) can lessen the chances that the exchange will end up feeding new resentments. Taking turns at expressing your experience, knowing that you will get to be heard too, that there will be a guaranteed safe place for your experience, will ease your anxiety, anger, desperation, and despair. It will also vastly improve the possibility of building a newly empathic bond. By communicating one at a time (with a breathing and sleeping break in between), at least for a while, you are creating a garden for kindness, curiosity, and support — the defining aspects of intimacy — to at least have a chance to take root and hopefully grow.
Resentment is a relationship poison; it kills off the yummiest part of intimacy, namely, the opportunity to give and receive empathy. If your relationship (and you) are suffering with resentment, try these suggestions and see what happens. It can’t hurt and it might help. Either way, the process of trying will deliver its own kind riches and rich kindness.