By Tracy Henderson, LMHCA
I recall as a child my mother saying to me “treat others as you would want to be treated.” Then, on occasion, I would witness my parents argue and exchange several “cool” words I wasn’t allowed to say. Subsequently, I would ask my mom “Is that what you mean when you said treat others how you want to be treated?” She would commonly respond with a few more “cool” words directed at me and conclude with “you don’t understand, it’s different, wait until you’re married…”
At the time, I thought my mom was awesome because she said “cool” words in front of me on the other hand, all the other stuff she was trying to teach me just went in one ear and out the other. More recently, as I reflect on the time spent with couples, I often recall that sage advice my mother shared with me rather than the “cool” words she often used. This being the mantra to treat others as you would want to be treated.
As a couples counselor I often remind my clients that conflict in a relationship is inevitable. Disagreements and misunderstandings will take place. Although, when conflict does take place the objective is to engage in healthy, constructive conflict. More often than not both partners, at some point, perpetuate the negativity and take part in blaming, criticizing, or judging one another. The collateral damage results in unhealthy conflict and consequently compounds the negativity that already existed.
For that reason, during a conflict, a critical step should involve an effort by both partners to reduce and eliminate the negativity channeled through blaming, criticizing, and judgment. To do that, I often share with my clients an approach based on research from The Gottman Institute and the implementation of an approach from Anatol Rapoport known as the “assumption of similarity.”
Rapoport shared that during conflict people will see their partner as dis-similar to them, and tend to see themselves as having all the positive qualities. This naturally creates a scenario where each partner begins to see one another as the “opponent” or even as the “adversary.”
This might play out in a conversation where one partner might say to the other “You’re so lazy, why don’t you ever put the dishes away? I’m just as tired as you, but I manage to put them away all the time.” To combat this, Rapoport offered an approach to lessen the tendency to see others during conflict as “adversary” by understanding that most people are forgiving of their own mistakes and less forgiving of others.
Which translates into: When you identify a negative quality in your partner, try to see that very quality in yourself. The results may lead you to find that you become more understanding and forgiving of your partner. Whereas, when you identify a positive quality in yourself, try to see that very quality in your partner. This offers the opportunity to infuse more positivity into your relationship, which builds the emotional bank account.
My mom’s advice wasn’t too far off. Along with her advice to “treat others as you would want to be treated,” I would suggest next time you are experiencing a conflict with your partner and certainly before you cast blame, criticize, or judge them, try seeing that same quality in yourself.
You might just find that it becomes easier to understand and much easier to forgive.