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Making Molehills Out of  Mountains/Reclaiming Your Personal
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By Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D.

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Walking a Mile in Your Partner’s Shoes

The love of our neighbor in all its fullness
simply means being able to say to him,
“What are you going through?”
-Simone Weil


Acceptance grows from understanding how your partner experiences life through their eyes.

The first action step is empathy. This one step can do much to alleviate the conflict in any of your relationships. Empathy is a specific relationship skill where you choose to understand your partner by being able to see their world as they experience it, without judging or correcting their perceptions. So easy for me to say, so hard for any of us to do. But believe me, there’s a huge payoff for your practice and patience.

I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, “What about me, what about how I see the world, what about my best interests?” I promise you, when you make the shift we’re discussing, you’ll discover how your best interests will be honored in ways that you never dreamt possible.     

Your best interests in any relationship relies on one thing and one thing only--being able to communicate to your partner that you understand them. Your partner doesn’t want to be argued with, your partner doesn’t want to be corrected, your partner doesn’t want to be made out to be wrong.

Do you know what your partner wants most out of life? Your partner wants to be understood in order that they may feel accepted by you. The payoff is tremendous, believe me. You’ll minimize conflict, deepen the bond between you and your partner, and create a freely giving relationship.

What does empathy look like and more importantly how does it affect your partner? Consider this scenario...

“Bobby, what’s the matter? You’ve been moping around all day.” Rhonda asked.

“There’s nothing wrong with me, would you quit bugging me,” Bobby snapped back.

“Come on, Bobby, can’t we at least talk about it?” Rhonda pleaded.

“Talk about what? How you completely embarrassed me in front of my friends?”

“I did what? I embarrassed you in front of your friends!” Rhonda shouted back.

“Yea, you embarrassed me,” Bobby said.

“How, pray tell, did I do that?” Rhonda asked as she rolled her eyes.

“You went off on me in front of Tom and Matthew,” Bobby said.

“Of course I did. Don’t you think I was entitled to my reaction? I’m tired of the three of you laying around here leaving a mess for me to pick up.”

“Yea, Rhonda, you always have a great argument ready for me, but that’s not the point. You didn’t have to do it in front of them. Why couldn’t we discuss it later? I’ve told you time and time again that I don’t want you talking to me like that in front of my friends.”

“And I’ve told you time and time again, I don’t want your friends over here trashing the house,” Rhonda countered.

"Whatever, but believe me, this better be the last time you pull a stunt like that in front of my friends.”

What’s going on here? Two people are locked in a battle of wits over who’s position is more justifiable. The goal of this conversation is to build a case to justify how wronged  each feels rather than working at understanding each other.

Empathy is an act of understanding--in this case, how a person is affected by another person’s actions. Do you see how Rhonda and Bobby violated the spirit of empathy? They put their energy into forcing their own interpretation of their experiences upon each other.

My point is, as you make small shifts in how you discuss things with your partner, there will be dramatic differences in the outcome. The shift: going from being argumentative to empathetic. For instance...

“Bobby, what’s the matter? You’ve been moping around all day.” Rhonda asked.

“There’s nothing wrong with me, would you quit bugging me,” Bobby snapped back.

“Come on, Bobby, can’t we at least talk about it?” Rhonda pleaded.

“Talk about what? How you completely embarrassed me in front of my friends?”

“I hadn’t realized I embarrassed you, can you tell me how I embarrassed you?” Rhonda asked.

“It’s embarrassing to have you come in and keep reminding me to clean up. You’re not my mother, you know,” Bobby said.

“Yes, I realize that I’m not your mother. What I didn’t realize is that I was embarrassing you or treating you like your mother. I can certainly understand how that must anger you.

“But Bobby, is there some way you and I can work together on keeping the house cleaner? I don’t want to embarrass you. I don’t want to nag you. But I don’t think you realize how hard it is on me to keep doing this by myself.”

“No, I guess I don’t. You hadn’t said anything to me before. What’s the matter?” Bobby asked.

“It’s not that there’s any one thing that’s wrong. I’m just feeling overwhelmed with a lot of different things right now. You know I like having Tom and Matthew over, but by the time the card game is over, you’ve got all those beer cans laying around, cigarettes all over the place, and the food just sits. It’s just getting to be too much for me.”

“Alright, I get your point. I hadn’t realized things had gotten so out of hand. I see why you would resent what’s been going on lately, how you feel like we’re not working together. I know how I feel when it feels like I’m in this all alone. I don’t need much imagination to figure out what you’re going through now. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it earlier, but thanks for letting me know.”

Do you see the difference an empathetic gesture makes? When you work at seeing things through the eyes of your partner, you take defensiveness out of the relationship and replace it with kindness, understanding, and cooperation. Empathy simply is a skill that enables you to build a bridge between what you perceive is going on between you and your partner and what your partner is experiencing.

Empathy is the antidote for one of the most toxic needs we all have--the need to be right. How many of you feel that it’s more important to be right first, last, and always. Let me ask you a simple question, has it been worth it? Does it bring you the things that you claim you want?

Well, if you’re ready to surrender the need to be right and make your partner wrong, then you’re ready to see your partner’s viewpoint of the world without judgment or need for correction. When you’re able to do just that, you’ll find your partner more open to accepting who you are as well.

I want to propose a formula to you to help you with this relationship skill. It’s a four step process to help you become aware of: 1) your position; 2) your partner’s position; 3) the impediment to understanding your partner; 4) creating a new understanding of your partner once you have let go of what was getting in the way of understanding your partner.

There are two keys to this formula. The first key is your willingness to see two sides of any disagreement. You know that saying about there being three sides to any disagreement: yours, mine, and the truth. At the core of your ability to be empathetic rather than argumentative is your ability to step outside of your own position long enough to consider how your partner is experiencing whatever it is they are experiencing.

The second key is your willingness to let go. Invariably in any disagreement, there’s something that prevents you from looking at things through the eyes of your partner. There’s something that you’re holding onto within that’s preventing that from taking place.

Some examples of those impediments may be pride, the need to be right, ego, or fear of giving in. But until you check-in with yourself to better understand what’s preventing you from understanding your partner’s world, you’ll continue to be argumentative rather than empathetic. For example...

Bruce: I’ve walked the dog every night for the last three weeks. It’s time for you to walk the dog.

Alice: I don’t want to. I told you I’m too tired to walk her so late at night.

Bruce: Well, what about me? Don’t I deserve a break?

Alice: No, who ever said life’s fair. You’re always trying to get over on me. It’s always somehow, someway unfair to you. But what about me? There’s plenty of things I do, that I don’t see you doing around here. It’s time you started pitching in.

Let me walk you through the formula I just gave you in order to problemsolve this disagreement. Remember the goal is to see both sides of the disagreement in order to create a solution that considers both person’s concerns. In seeing both sides of the disagreement, you want to be able to see what impediments you need to let go of in order to be able to create a new way of seeing the disagreement. Ultimately, you want to craft a solution based upon you and your partner’s concerns.


Step 1: Bruce’s position.

Bruce feels like he has been walking the dog too often.
Bruce believes that life should be fair.


Step 2: Alice’s position.

Alice is too tired at night to walk the dog.
Alice believes that a couple should do everything fifty-fifty.


Step 3: What needs to be let go of?

For Bruce: Bruce believes that life should be fair; so he’s fighting to even up the score.
For Alice: Alice fears that she’ll be taken advantage of if Bruce doesn’t do as much as she does.

Step 4: A new way of thinking about the disagreement.


Bruce: I can see how hard you work during the day. I’m sorry that you feel as if I’m trying to get over on you. I want you to believe that I’m here to help you more fairly shoulder the load.

Alice: I know it seems like you’re doing everything. How about if we make a schedule whereby we switch off doing the different chores around the house?

How about if you give it a try yourself? Think about a point of disagreement that exists between you and your partner. Think about the position you take. Think about the position your partner takes. Do you know what you have to let go of in order to better understand your partner? Have you ever tried to let go of that impediment long enough to better understand your partner?

Do the following. Write down a disagreement you have with your partner.

Write down what your position is that you’re trying to impose upon your partner.

Write down what you understand your partner’s  position to be.

Write down what you would have to let go of in order to better see your partner’s side of the disagreement.

Write down a new way of thinking about the disagreement that honors you and your partner’s concerns. 

The point of being empathetic rather than argumentative is that you want to be able to construct a solution that includes both you and your partner’s concerns. Any other way is not a solution but an imposition of wills. If you want to learn how to resolve your issues rather than fix them, this skill is fundamental to your success. Being able to see the world through your partner’s eyes while letting go of whatever you are invested in holding onto will dramatically shift how you problemsolve with your partner. More importantly, it will change forever the outcome of those efforts.



Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in
Chicago, Illinois and Northfield, Illinois.

You can contact Dr. Frisch, Psy.D. at drfrisch@aliveandwellnews.com  or at
(847) 604-3290.

Recover from chemical dependency and its toxic impact on family members. Raise your children to choose to be alcohol and other drugs free. Learn how to in Dr. Frisch’s, Psy.D. Recovery book series.


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