Couples therapists talk about the "soft" emotions—like fear, shame, and sadness—that can lurk behind the "hard" anger and defensiveness that couples wear into conflict like armor. Getting a glimpse of Dan's softer side, the side that dreaded failure, made me see his perspective more clearly than any of our pre-moratorium arguments ever had. Empathic joining is the psychologist's term for when couples share their real feelings instead of sticking to their argumentative guns. By focusing less on scoring points and more on how an issue makes both partners feel, they can dissolve a standoff by finding common emotional ground. After all, Dan didn't like being apart any more than I did. By bonding over our frustration with the distance between us, we could work together to end it.
I wish I could say that, in enlightened couples therapist fashion, I graciously allowed Dan to take all the time he needed to move to L.A. (and, dear reader, it took three long years). It's more accurate to say I learned to temper my nagging, pestering, and cajoling with a little compassion. But once we became aware of our tendency to slip into demand-withdraw, our conversations felt more collaborative. If I got too pushy, I'd take a time-out—and Dan agreed that if he felt attacked, he'd tell me instead of just racing to get off the phone. The Most Useful Communication Technique of All Time saved us a few times too.
Since we've settled in L.A., where we share our guacamole-colored house with an old drum kit and a collection of amplifiers, Dan—who's now my husband—and I still argue about everything from politics to dinner plans to names for the baby we're expecting in a few months. But we've learned how to fight with, not against, each other. Here's an image I like: If conflict creates a tug-of-war, with both partners yanking in opposite directions, imagine leaning toward your mate instead. You might get thrown off balance, but you've also created some slack in the rope. Couples therapy taught me to lean forward instead of back, to shift the balance of power toward the center. That lesson was well worth a little extra me-search.