“You don’t understand what I’m going through,” Nate said.
“Well, you don’t understand what it’s like for me,” Kaley told Nate.
After two years of marriage, we found ourselves caught in this trap. It's a predicament that so many couples find themselves in, a conflict that boils down to this: you don’t understand me.
For us, an unexpected accident triggered these feelings of misunderstanding. Thirteen years ago, Nate had a serious bike accident that resulted in all sorts of mysterious physical and mental complications: dizziness, ringing in the ears, fatigue and, ultimately, anxiety and depression.
This is what caused Nate to feel so deeply misunderstood. He wanted Kaley to care more and to empathize more with his struggle.
Kaley, on the other hand, was witnessing her once energetic husband retreat from life. She wanted an engaged and equal partner and yet Nate seemed increasingly distant and unable to contribute to our life together.
The situation was hard. But our failure to understand each other made it even more difficult.
How about you? Do you ever feel misunderstood by your partner? Or does your partner ever complain about not feeling understood by you?
Here are three tools for closing the gap of understanding.
In difficult moments, it’s easy to brush off your partner's experience as somehow overblown, exaggerated, or invalid. This habit sounds something like this: “She’s blowing this out of proportion,” “It’s all in his head,” or “He thinks that stressful? Try spending a day in my shoes.”
When we can’t understand our partner, our mind naturally does this. We see their experience through our eyes, which leads us to subtly discount what they're going through.
The first shift toward understanding happens when you reverse this ordinary habit.
But how do you do that? It all starts by taking a huge mental leap toward seeing your partner's experience as inherently valid. It's legitimate, simply because they are experiencing it.
This shift is radical. It means that, even if you don’t understand your partner's struggles, even if you've never experienced something similar, you stretch toward seeing their struggle as real, at least for them.
When we got stuck two years after marriage, we moved away from each other. Nate felt so committed to his position that he couldn’t hear Kaley’s request for him to contribute more. Kaley, for her part, felt so committed to her position that she couldn’t hear Nate’s request for support and compassion.
Seeing each other's experience as real was the first step toward understanding. The second was to move toward each other, rather than withdraw into our positions. This looked like Nate doing his best to become a more equal partner. It looked like Kaley expressing greater empathy. It's a shift on both sides toward meeting the requests of the other partner with radical generosity of spirit.
But what if only one partner expresses this kind of generosity of spirit? To break this stalemate of understanding, someone has to make the first move. We get that this feels unfair. If you're the over-contributing partner, it likely triggers thoughts like, “Why should I be more generous to my partner? What have they done for me?"
But here's the thing. Generosity of spirit is contagious. If you move toward your partner, you begin to break down this wall of misunderstanding. Your generous action disarms your partner and lovingly invites them into an upward spiral of connection.
The more you move toward each other, even if you never fully understand the other person's experience, you can still get what you most want: love, connection, and intimacy.