I attended a Bat Mitzvah recently at which the Cantor shared words of wisdom about peace. Peace, he proclaimed, is desired by all people, in all nations. Problems arise not because we don’t want peace, but because we each define it according to personal, cultural, religious, or other differences; same word, contrasting meanings.
Instead of subjective notions of peace, Cantor Maseng offered a more universal concept: True peace, he said, is about wholeness, and wholeness is only possible when we bring all our diversity, all our differences together. It’s easy to be at peace with those who agree with us; true peace is about connecting with those who don’t.
What does world peace have to do with marriage and co-parenting? When I work with couples, I always mention the importance of mutual understanding up front:
Mutual understanding is a major ingredient in relationship satisfaction and successful co-parenting. Understanding isn’t the same as agreeing; instead, it’s about getting curious about our differences, accepting them, and working with, not against, them.
In other words, relationship happiness depends on world peace at a micro-level. Understanding others’ differences can be difficult. Many, if not most, of us grew up in a family, community, country and/or world in which differences are grounds for intolerance and conflict, not compassion and cooperation. Meaning, while we might want relationship peace, we often define it as sameness. Then, we waste precious time failing to get others to comply with us.
In truth, even more than John Gray’s insistence that men are from Mars and women from Venus, we’re all from different planets. Understanding our spouse is, then, less about embracing presumed gender differences* (a challenge in same-sex relationships), and more about getting curious regarding our spouses’ unique differences from us.
Doing so truly allows us to “keep the peace” in our marriages and invites the wholeness noted earlier: Our relationships can be truly whole—i.e., peaceful, fulfilling and satisfying—not because we’re the same as spouses, or always agree, but because, together, we embrace, respect and work productively with and through our differences.
There’s no simple way to magically understand our spouse, but there are steps we can take to begin to do so. Marita Fridjhon and Faith Fuller, founders of Center for Right Relationship, created a wonderful technique called Lands Work, which starts from the assumption that every individual is like a nation unto ourselves, with our own cultural practices, cuisine, communication style, justice system, import and export policies, etc. While Lands Work doesn’t translate well to the written page, their starting point for the exercise does:
Imagine you’re an ideal tourist, guided by curiosity, openness, exploration, and a suspension of judgment. Now, imagine you’re visiting your spouse’s land as this ideal tourist, eager to learn more about their reality, their priorities and what’s important to them about what they believe, how they act, parent, etc.
If we can truly stay curious with our spouses, and suspend judgment, we can ramp up our understanding and compassion for them and, in turn, work with our differences, even if we don’t agree with those differences. In fact, genuine and sustainable compromises emerge out of mutual understanding.
One of Psychologist Harville Hendrix’s tools for increasing mutual understanding is The Imago Dialogue, which includes 3 steps:
(1) Mirroring: When you have something important to say to your spouse always use “I” to express it. Your spouse paraphrases what you’ve said and then asks you: “Did I get that right?” Repeat these steps until s/he does get it right. To ground this, Hendrix suggests adding: Is there more? Or: Tell me more. I’d include: Tell me what’s important to you about this?
(2) Validation: Once you’ve got mirroring down, add comments that indicate what your spouse has expressed makes sense to you, given their logic or priorities or concerns. As Hendrix notes, the idea is “to affirm the internal logic of each other’s remarks.” Here, it’s important to distinguish agreeing from understanding someone else’s logic; you can understand without agreeing.
(3) Empathy: Hendrix’s final step involves acknowledging the feelings we know, or imagine, are behind our spouses’ remarks. This goes something like: “Given that you think I’ve done such-and-such (or that such-and-such has happened), I’d imagine you’re feeling x,y,z. Is that true?” If you’re wrong, ask: “Then what are you feeling?” And offer empathy for those feelings.
It’s no easy task to retrain ourselves to dialogue in the way Hendrix suggests and, in truth, even if we can learn to master Mirroring we’ll be ahead of the curve in our communication tools and our ability to begin to understand our differences.
If we’re truly committed to being in relationship with each other, we’d benefit by grabbing our passports or mirrors and traveling into our spouses’ experiences, so that we can ensure our teamwork is based on mutual respect and understanding.
Doing so doesn’t guarantee we’ll always end up feeling peaceful or with 50-50 compromises, but it does mean that whatever decisions or actions we make together truly include both our experiences and each of our differences.
* If you’re interested in how gender myths impact our relationships and families, read Same Difference, which teases apart research on which these myths are based.