I have often marveled at the fact that two people can share an experience, and later retell the details of the experience in completely different, sometimes even utterly contradictory, ways. Whether it is something positive or negative seems to be irrelevant.
How is it even possible that if we were both there, and the same thing happened while we both observed or participated, that we could each remember and recount the details so differently? It would almost seem as if one of us is lying. The truth is, nobody is lying. Most of the time, it wouldn’t even make sense for either of us to lie. It is actually just that our perception of the experience or event is interpreted from our own sense of reality and seen through our own unique lens.
You see, everyone has a way of understanding and perceiving the world and what occurs in it. Some, as you’ve likely heard the saying, look at the world “through rose colored lenses”. That is to say that they see only the good in others and in the world. They wouldn’t know bad or evil if it landed in their lap. Similarly, you’ve likely encountered people that are “Debby Downers”. These people see only the bad in everyone and everything, are filled with negativity and pessimism, and are difficult to be around.
Most of us fall somewhere in between these extremes. But no two people will ever perceive anything exactly the same way. This is why another person loves that song you hate or sees something in that piece of art that you don’t. These differences in our perception can be fascinating and interesting, but also a great source of problems.
As a therapist, I hear conflicting stories from couples on a daily basis. It never ceases to amaze me how differently two people can perceive one event. Here are a few examples of some of the most common ones I hear:
A: Our son was out of control last night. He threw a huge temper tantrum and it took an hour to calm him down.
B: Our son got a little upset last night. He started whining a bit because he didn’t want to go to bed. Once I read him a story, he calmed right down and went to sleep.
A: His mom was just here for a visit and she was so incredibly rude. She spoke to me in such a derogatory tone of voice, and did not respect any of my rules or boundaries.
B: My mom doesn’t always agree with our parenting choices, and she sometimes asks to do things we already told her are not okay.
A: She never initiates sex anymore. I am always the one to initiate if we are going to have sex at all. I feel so rejected.
B: I put on my sexy lingerie and climbed into bed. He didn’t even notice because he was on his iPad. Then, he turned off his iPad, rolled over, and said goodnight. I felt so rejected.
As you can see, this is easy to imagine in almost any situation. If you have siblings, you likely recall certain events completely differently from one another. I know my siblings and I get good laughs about this as adults. We constantly try to tell each other that’s not what really happened, but each of us are certain that we are right.
The same is true with your partner and even with your children. Everyone is approaching things from their own perspective. One of the best ways to resolve a conflict is to try to imagine what the other person might be hearing, feeling or experiencing. It would be like stepping into their shoes, at their developmental stage, with their personal history, and imagining how they might perceive this. Usually, the more heated the argument, the more important it is to actually try this.
The notion that there are two sides to every story grows out of this very idea that every person has different thoughts, feelings and beliefs. This influences how they see the world and how they behave in the world. Problems arise when one person is convinced that he or she is right and the other person is wrong. Even worse problems occur when there is no empathy. So, how can you minimize the conflict in your relationship? Here are some tips:
- Whenever you think you are clearly right and your partner is wrong, take a step back and remind yourself that most things are not so black and white.
- Ask yourself if it is possible that someone might have a different perspective on this issue that could also be legitimate.
- Listen to your partner without getting defensive of your position. Consider why they might see/think/feel differently than you do.
- Consider how important it is for you to be right. Is that more important than empathizing with your partner?
- Discuss and acknowledge your differing views and try to figure out a solution to your problem despite not seeing eye to eye. Yes, it is possible.
When you realize that there are two sides to every story, that everyone holds different thoughts, feelings, beliefs and ideas, then and only then can you truly begin to solve problems. Healthy relationships cannot exist without empathy. When understanding one another matters more than being right, you can resolve problems much more effectively.