When it comes to relationships, the scientific method is a bust. Quentin Hafner has an alternative.
Have you ever caught yourself in the middle of a conflict with your partner using arguments such as “that is simply not true!” or “you’re not being rational!” or any number of “logical” statements trying to trap our partners in their web of irrational-ness! Or am I the only one that does that? When things get heated between partners, often times, our initial go-to response in attempt to defend ourselves is to employ logical and, what we believe are, highly intellectual statements to “prove” our partners wrong. Well, I blame science for this fruitless and damaging relational interaction. Science, especially in our Western cultures, has taught us that words such as “rational,” “logic,” “proof,” and “truth,” are the holy grail of our English language and should be valued above all. However, as it goes with interpersonal relating, using scientific reasoning as a defensive strategy to oppose our partners “illogical” perspective has dire consequences and usually will undermine any semblance of intimacy. In this regard, “science” is wrong, and so we need to find a new vocabulary and a new way of understanding when it comes to rationale and logic.
Seeing Black and White in Relationships
In math, there are simply right and wrong answers, but with intimate relationships, there are no right answers, only right ways to talk about things. A man I was working with recently in couples therapy protested over his wife’s “crazy-thinking” and harshly criticized her by saying things like, “that’s crazy,” and “you’re insane” in response to something he didn’t agree with. The man in this example, which is common to many men (myself included), was confusing his wife’s feelings for objective reality. It was too difficult for him to separate her subjective feelings from a declaration of truth. Our thoughts and feelings are never about right vs. wrong, us vs. them, black vs. white, or me vs. you. Our thoughts and feelings, when we use words to communicate them, are used to articulate our subjective experience. They are true for us, but they are not the truth. I often am wary of people with strong and rigid religious and political convictions because I know these people often have a hard time with intimate interpersonal relating. True intimacy demands lots of flexibility and has little room for objectivity.
Relationships Have Little Room For Objectivity
During conflict with our partners, we can often attribute the conflict to a difference of perceptions—what some therapists refer to as “Perception Battles.” Perception differences are natural, normal, and healthy. Philosophically, no two people see any one things the same. However, Perception Battles become damaging and destructive in our relationships when we become so entrenched in our perception of things that we leave little room to try to understand our partner’s point of view. We sometimes say, “you can’t see it my way, therefore, you’re clearly seeing it wrong.” We can become locked into our myopic view and trying to “prove” the other wrong. These “proof” arguments never work, and ultimately leave someone in the relationship feeling misunderstood, shamed, and sometimes even crazy. Perception Battles are never about true or false, or right or wrong. They are two different subjective experiences that are both valid and need understanding. Children are great teachers of this principle. Sometimes my two-year-old toddler is completely insane. One minute he wants his water bottle, and when I get it for him he throws it at me. WTF?! Because I know and respect he is highly irrational, I also know my attempting to convince him of some rational concept will result in only two outcomes: 1. I will either go insane myself, or 2. He will become even more enraged with me. And coincidently, these are often the two outcomes of adult interpersonal relationships as well when we use rationale and logic. As a good-enough parent, my role sometimes is to simply sit with him and tolerate his “insanity,” and not try and convince him of it otherwise. Believe it or not, our intimate adult relationships are not very different from this scenario despite our grown-up bodies, our sophisticated presentations, and our grandiose, self-important adult minds.
Rationale and Logic Will Only Take Us So Far
The worst news for many partners that ask for help in getting their relationship out of its crisis is to hear me say that relationships are not rational or logical and they demand us to throw these ideas out the window. Applying any of these “scientific” concepts to our highly irrational and illogical emotional lives will take our relationships into the gutter. Rationale and logic are great for designing aircraft materials and solving math problems, but intimate relationships require a different skill set. Outwitting and disproving work well when applied to the debate team in high school but will fail us quickly in developing meaningful connection with our partners.
So What Can We Do Differently?
1. Learning to listen differently
One of the foundational elements of any quality relationship is having sufficient reciprocal empathy. When we engage in the right versus wrong dialogue, we are not fostering empathy, but creating an antagonistic environment that fosters hostile competition. When we hear our partner state their thoughts and feelings about anything, remember, that is simply their thoughts and feelings and it doesn’t have to be true or false.
2. Do not try to solve the problem
Generally, men struggle more with wanting to “solve” problems than women do, so there is a little gender bias here, although I’ve certainly seen my share of women struggle with this too. Remember, when our partner shares about something they’re struggling with, they are not asking for a solution! Most often (99% of the time), they simply want us to listen and try to understand where they’re coming from. The irony is this: If we can simply listen and not offer a solution—that IS the solution!
3. Take agree vs. aisagree and throw it away
Try to be mindful of falling into the agree versus disagree trap. If you find yourself saying you “disagree,” or “that’s false”, you can be certain that the conversation is heading down a degrading path of eroding connection with your partner. When we’re trying to connect intimately, especially when we’re working through conflict, our goal is never to either agree with our partner or disagree with them. We simply want to develop more curiosity and move toward greater empathic understanding.
4. Know when to walk away
And lastly, use your own awareness of engaging with logic and rationale to temporarily halt the conversation. If you find yourself locking-horns with your mate in a right versus wrong debate, it’s time to walk away, because nothing good will happen. Use this as a cue to take a time-out and ask your partner for a hiatus from the conversation until you can regroup emotionally and engage your partner with genuine curiosity instead of rationale and logic.
Seeing Subjectively Is Our Hope
Learning there is little objective truth (ouch!) in our intimate relationships will save us from countless, painful, drawn-out arguments that ultimately do not solve much of anything. Many of us, especially us men, have been raised as little problem solvers and to value ideas such as “finding the truth,” or “fixing the problem.” These are not bad skills, and our Western societies have cultivated brilliant men with brilliant ideas when it comes to using logic and rationale in business, science, and technology. But our marriages and hopefully our most intimate friendships too, call us to transition from seeing the world less objectively to seeing it more subjectively and knowing when to ditch rationale and logic for the greater benefit of meaningful, life-enriching connections.
Originally published on QuentinHafner.com.