(Names and details have been changed.)
I was recently talking to Cathy, a friend of mine. She and her girlfriend Sammy were having a tough time in their relationship and had just gotten into a fight. She explained what had happened. They were decorating the house for the holidays together, but Sammy got upset and said it was all for her, her tree, her project. She lashed out at Cathy and left. From Cathy’s perspective, Sammy was having a temper tantrum. She didn’t understand why Sammy was getting so upset. Why couldn’t they have a nice evening together? What went wrong?
We talked for a while about what Sammy’s ‘triggers’ were and why she was upset at Cathy. Shee had multiple unresolved stressors in her life that were getting activated. Mostly it seemed that she just didn’t believe in herself. There were a number of reasons for this, including having famous parents whose reputations she would never live up to, an achievement oriented girlfriend who had very little free time and as a consequence wasn’t as available as she needed. Sammy struggled with her sense of not being who she ‘should’ be and that she should somehow be ‘more.’ This was part of a bucket full of difficult issues going on for her – some she was probably not fully aware of, and we were not yet to the heart of the problem between them.
Eventually we got to my friend’s ‘part.’ What she was doing that was contributing to Sammy not feeling a part of this family event.
Sammy had been busy, so Cathy had picked up the tree. They were living in Cathy’s house. They were decorating with her ornaments. They were doing it on her schedule because this is when she had time. The holiday decorating was very important to her. It meant family to her. She wanted to do it with Sammy. But somehow the ‘WE’ evaporated (at least from Sammy’s perspective) and decorating had become yet another project to be squeezed into an already tight schedule. Somehow the project became something that actually interfered with the act of connecting and being a ‘WE’ with her partner. She wasn’t intentionally casting Sammy aside. She wanted her to be part of this ritual. But she hadn’t been standing in Sammy’s shoes. She hadn’t been able to see what was happening through Sammy’s eyes.
As Sue Johnson – founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy – says, ‘if it’s emotional and packs a punch, it is about attachment’ – or “Am I important to you?” When Sammy was upset, it was because she didn’t feel important, wanted, needed or good enough. When Cathy got upset, it was because she felt mistreated by Sammy’s behavior and felt that her intentions were misunderstood. She wanted the ritual for both of them, but her ‘get it done’ skill set wasn’t working in this scenario.
The world of our partners may be complex. We may struggle to understand their experience. Their reactions may appear mysterious to us. We may have no idea why they are behaving as they are. We may not see how our actions contribute to our ‘cycle’ of conflict. We may not wish to take responsibility because we feel innocent. And in we actually are innocent in that we are not hurting our partners on purpose.
We hurt them when we lash out because we feel hurt, or because we are caught in a way of being that just isn’t right for the other person. And sometimes hurting someone else is unavoidable and part of the friction of growing. The pain makes us look deeper.
My friend and her girlfriend are both really good people. Neither of them would intentionally hurt someone else. Sammy acted out because of her own sense of needing to feel more special. And Cathy had no idea that Sammy would experience her actions this way. But unexamined ways of being, old issues or unidentified needs can blind us. Nobody is at fault here. But there is an opportunity to learn more about each other and ourselves.
Our imagination is one of our greatest gifts. And when we link our imagination with empathy we have the power to step into another’s world and understand their experience not just with our minds, but also with our hearts. Empathy = em+pathos or ‘from emotion, from suffering, from experience.’ We have to experience another’s emotion, suffering, experience. It is this ability that allows us to address how we are impacting another. Yet if we are unable or unwilling to experience our own guilt, or for some of us the shame of hurting another, we cannot link our imagination and our empathy. We cannot step into another’s world, take responsibility for our actions and make the changes needed.
What if we were to step not just into the world of our partners, but also into the world of the animals we raise for food, of the humans who serve us, or sew the clothes we wear? What if we were to step into the world of children growing up with no opportunity for education?
As we use our imaginations and also our empathy, our excuses for unacceptable situations can no longer hold. We can no longer say, ‘it has to be this way – it isn’t cost effective to do it another way.’ We can no longer justify taking care of ourselves first at the expense of others. There was a great war over slavery in this country because many could not see how the economic system would work without it. Yet it did and it does. When we make changes, new ways emerge – whether in the larger systems already in place in the world, or in the intimate and personal interactions of our own relationships.
It is up to each of us. Use your mind and your heart. Step into that place of imagination and empathy. Then decide what you are and are not willing to change.