Why do partners argue? What’s at the heart of anger? When it comes to perspective, we can say that when a person’s perspective is felt to be disregarded, it causes resentment. When difference is not recognized, it, too, causes anger. Too much of this sort of relating can lead a person to feel they’re in a bad marriage or a bad relationship. And, indeed, it feels awful to be dismissed because you have a different perspective!
UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE: No one sees the world exactly like you do. Only you have that unique combination of personal experiences, affects and cognitions as well as your different states of perception that makes you, you! And the same can be said for everyone; we are all unique. And so are the perspectives we hold.
AN EXAMPLE: In my work with both long-married couples and with newly married couples, I’ve often drawn upon an example to illustrate the concept of unique perspective. Here it is:
You and your partner are out to dinner. You see on the menu your favorite soup—tomato bisque—and you order it. When it arrives, you take your first spoonful and confirm that it’s delicious. Your partner is not a fan of tomato bisque. Nevertheless, you offer a taste, and your partner agrees to try a spoonful. Your partner doesn’t like the soup.
What does this example illustrate? Is the soup good? Bad?
Is your partner wrong? Are you?
WE EACH SEE THE WORLD DIFFERENTLY: Soup is a far easier topic over which to disagree than, say, money. Or sex. Or, how to discipline the kids. Or infidelity. Or anger or emotional distress. But soup illustrates the important point that we each see the world differently. Some like tomato bisque. Some don’t.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT DIFFERENCE? What happens between partners when each holds a different perspective? How do you negotiate difference? Does one partner try to eliminate difference with distain, or contempt? The restaurant example comes to mind again . . .
-What if your partner had said “This soup is awful. I can’t understand why you like it.”
-Or, “You’ve’ never had good taste when it came to soup. It’s ridiculous that you always order this unappealing soup.”
-Or, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. This soup is terrible. Anyone can see that.”
Or . . .
-what if you had said . . . “You have no taste when it comes to good food.”
-Or, “You’re so rigid. You never like anything new.”
–Or, “You’re an idiot. This is fine soup and you know it.”
WHY DOES DIFFERENCE CAUSE PROBLEMS? Why do differences in perspective generate friction between partners? Why does difference bring on contempt and dismissiveness?
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE CAN BE THREATENING: Difference raises the possibility that we’ll be shamed or dismissed. Difference raises the possibility that our position won’t be considered. In the presence of differing perspectives, partners can feel competitive, each vying for affirmation. Each seeks to to prevail by eliminating the other. This starts the negative cycle of contempt, resentment and growing emotional distance.
HOW ARGUMENTS DEVELOP: When partners approach differences in perspective with fear or with anxiety about being obliterated, and when partners take defensive positions against each other, it’s easy to see how arguments develop.
HOW DO YOU APPROACH DIFFERENCES IN PERSPECTIVE: How do you shift away from competition and toward cooperation and engagement? How to you break the cycle?
RESPECT IS KEY: Do you value your partner’s opinions? Does your partner value yours? Do each of you show respect for your differences by listening carefully and by sustaining curiosity and interest? Do you choose language diplomatically, being careful to distinguish your positions without dismissing the other’s? When we demonstrate understanding for the other’s position, we open up the necessary space for respect and dignity to come into the picture. We break the cycle of contempt, fear and anger over difference.