About You, Not About You

Posted on April 14, 2014


One of the difficulties partners often seemed to encounter in couple relationships is being able to differentiate what is about you from what is not about you.  This difficulty is further complicated by the fact that most people would not recognize that this is an issue.  Let me explain what I mean by this.  When your partner raises a complaint, if you immediately start to defend, you just made it about you.  Even if it was something you did or didn’t do that upset your partner, it was still not about you.  It was about how your partner was feeling.  Expressing empathy makes it about your partner.  Even if your partner has the facts wrong, defending makes it about you.  If you first make it about what your partner is feeling, then you can straighten out the facts.

Now let’s flip the situation around.  If you are upset about something your partner did or didn’t do, what is the issue?  You’re upset, right.  Now this is about you.  If you make it about your partner being inconsiderate, you have moved into criticism.  The likely outcome is that your partner will become defensive leaving you both feeling misunderstood, disconnected, isolated, and unsupported.  The issue at hand is your experience.

Here’s why this matters.  First, marriage is about connection and attachment.  Missing this piece of the puzzle leaves you both disconnected and isolated.  Getting this right leads to connection and intimacy.  Second, it is hard to heal the emotional wounds that occur during the course of a marriage unless the partner who has been hurt feels understood.  This applies not only to significant violations in the relationship, but also to the day by day irritations that go with living with another human being.

As I have previously asserted, empathy beats an apology.  An apology just does not mean much if your partner does not feel that you understand his or her pain.  Entering into your partners experience is the essence of empathy.  If you make your partner’s feelings about you, you miss the opportunity to express empathy.  Additionally, you do not have to have been in the wrong to do this.  This is not about being right or wrong, it is about showing caring and making your partner feel understood.  Even if you have been completely misunderstood, it is better to reflect that you understand your partner’s feelings before offering your view of the incident.

A large part of my work is with sex addicts.  Since in my practice I work with the men, I will use gender specific pronouns even though there are many female sex addicts as well.  Critical to the healing process is that the partner feels that the addict understands what his acting out has done to her emotionally.  As part of the treatment, we go through a process of disclosure in which the addict comes clean about his acting out.  The partner also prepares a “cost letter” discussing what the addiction has cost her (emotionally, physically, socially, financially, psychologically, spiritually, etc.).  This process needs to be deferred long enough that the addict has learned to empathize with the partner without going to shame.  Shame is self-focused.  Empathy is other-focused.  Even though the addict’s behavior caused the partner’s pain, this moment is not about the addict.  It is about the partner’s healing.  When you did whatever acting out you did, it was about you.  If your partner expresses pain and you get stuck in your shame, it is still all about you.  If your partner expressed pain and you empathize, that is a powerful step toward healing.

Sexual addiction is not the only form of violation or betrayal in an intimate relationship.  Not everyone who has an affair is a sex addict.  We can also expand the concept of infidelity to include any keeping of secrets in an intimate relationship.  When there has been such an injury to the attachment and intimacy in the relationship, it is not realistic to expect immediate healing.  The partner who has been hurt will often become triggered and flooded with pain and anger.  If you are the partner who violated the relationship, even though you caused it, your partner’s anger is not about you.  When your partner is triggered, this is an opportunity for healing if you can make that moment about your partner.  If you miss the opportunity, guess what?  You get another try because your partner will keep getting triggered.  If you can make this about your partner’s pain instead about how badly you feel about yourself (or how much you have been misunderstood), you begin the healing process.

For the small hurts of daily living, you can probably save yourselves from needing therapy if you get good at this.  For the big things, you probably still need therapy but it will be shorter and have a better prognosis if you can learn to do this.

Let’s talk about what this looks like.  I will be brief because this is a blog and not a book.  Here’s a simple example.

1)      You arrive home at 7:00 pm and your partner says in an angry tone, “You are late again.  You promised you would be home by six for dinner.”  You respond

  1.        “I am really sorry.”
  2.       “It wasn’t my fault.  My last appointment ran over and I really need that sale to make my goal for this month.”
  3.        “I have been working all day trying to make money for this family.  Why do you always have to bitch at me as soon as I walk in?”
  4.       “Don’t even start with me” and walk away.
  5.       “You are really upset that I am late again.”

Let’s sort through this.

  1.        This is an apology.  It isn’t bad, per se, but it doesn’t make your partner feel understood and it doesn’t promote connection.  Additionally, if this is always your approach, you end up surrendering your voice in the relationship just to keep the peace which isn’t very satisfying for you either.
  2.       Defensiveness.  You just made it about you, didn’t you?  Your partner came with a complaint and you heard it as criticism and defended.  There may be a point in the conversation to share this information, but this is not that time.
  3.        The best defense is a good offense, huh?  This is a counter-attack with some criticism (“always”) and contempt (“bitch”) thrown in.
  4.       Ah, the classic stonewall.  Also an exit from connection.  The most likely response to this is that your partner will up the ante (whatever that looks like for him or her).  In attachment relationships any response is better than none at all.  Generally when one partner stonewalls the other partner protests more loudly and angrily to get a response.
  5.       This response is about your partner.  The issue isn’t really that you are late.  It is that your partner has an emotional reaction to your being late.  Most likely, your partner is feeling that he or she is not important enough to you for you to be on time.  Feeling unimportant to your partner creates pain and sadness.  “Upset” will do at this point for acknowledging your partner’s feelings.  Your partner may still unload anger on you, but acknowledging it helps to dissipate your partner’s feelings, and show that you understand and care.

This is not that complicated, but it is counterintuitive.  This is particularly so if you grew up in a family where family members were more concerned about being right then in emotional connection.  If acknowledging my partner’s experience equals admitting I am wrong, and admitting I am wrong equals I am bad, then of course your natural reaction is to defend.  Here’s the thing, your partner’s feelings are not about you (even if something you did or did not do caused them).