Take selfishness—most of us think it's bad for relationships. The problem is that there are so many potentially legitimate yardsticks for measuring piggishness, and we tend to use our own, not our partner's. Grace believed that Adam's behavior at the reception was selfish—he was thinking only of himself. But Adam believed that Grace was the one who acted badly. He wouldn't dream of restricting her desire to be with her friends.
In my office, I explained to Grace that if she wanted to believe that Adam's actions were wrong, she had every right to. But in doing so, she'd be putting herself in the company of those who are destined to fail in their relationships. The choice was hers. I wouldn't try to stop her. But I could and did tell her that evidence from studies spearheaded by John Gottman at the University of Washington suggests that if Adam and Grace continue with their critical attitudes toward each other, the chances of their marriage surviving over the long haul are less than 20 percent.
I also explained that Adam's responses weren't any more effective than Grace's. He had made it clear that he thought Grace was overreacting and that her expectations were out of line, but Adam needed to know that beliefs like this are highly predictive of divorce. Partners who succeed in their relationships recognize that conflicts are not usually about right or wrong, they're about legitimately different expectations. I told Adam it was important he recognize that Grace's needs at the reception were just as legitimate as his.
I could see them struggling with this information. To Grace, dropping the idea that Adam was wrong would be like letting him off the hook. If he wasn't the bad guy, did she really have a right to be upset?
It's natural to feel agitated when your expectations are ignored, I explained, and she had every right to insist that Adam take her feelings into account. But Adam would be more able to do this if she could give up the idea that he did something wrong and instead explain to him how she felt. Once Grace realized her critical attitude was working against her, she saw the value in not blaming Adam. Instead she confessed that she felt unimportant to him and was afraid he cared more about his friends than her. This was a bold move on Grace's part, leaving her vulnerable. She braced herself for his response. But Adam's eyes softened immediately, and he offered an unsolicited apology, assuring her that he would try to be more sensitive to her feelings.
I wasn't surprised. I've spent 20 years as a marriage counselor, witnessing the profound rewards partners like Grace and Adam reap once they've adjusted their attitudes toward each other. The way our brains are wired, the most effective way to solicit understanding and cooperation is not by attempting to prove oneself right at the other's expense. It's by exposing vulnerability. This is a difficult adjustment for anyone to make when feeling threatened, but in relationships where an emotional bond exists, evidence suggests that our brains are set up to respond to vulnerability with empathy.
A week later, Adam and Grace sat sullenly on my couch. The day before, Grace had decided to surprise Adam by showing up at his office to take him out to lunch. Adam wasn't as pleased as Grace anticipated because he'd already planned a working lunch with a colleague who was helping him with a project. Reluctantly, he broke his plans and went out with Grace, but she was incensed by his attitude.
What happened here? The couple had experienced firsthand the enormous benefits of abandoning critical judgments of each other, yet less than seven days later, they were locked into the same defensive attitudes that had created the impasse at the reception.
We Hear You!