Renowned couples therapist Esther Perel recently came out with a new audio series, “Where Should We Begin?” The premise: Listeners follow along as Perel counsels a struggling couple. (The couple is anonymous.)
If you listen to the series’ first episode, “intense” is pretty much the only fitting description. A husband and wife come to Perel a year after the wife discovered her husband’s infidelity — and while the wife says she was once “uncontrollably angry,” now she’s more numb to the whole situation.
For both partners, there are still a lot of unresolved issues.
Throughout the episode, both partners talk about how lonely they felt before the husband’s affair, and how each one disappointed the other.
At one point, the wife says: “I felt like we had a difficult life — difficult, but leaning to good, right? So I was willing to work for it, and I was happy in that. But after you betrayed me, I was like, ‘What was all that hard work for?'”
The husband responds quickly: “I mean, I understand how you feel because I felt the same way.”
Perel doesn’t interject that often — but she does here. “It’s very hard,” she tells the husband, “because you want to equalize it. Let it exist in its own unique experience. But if you keep saying, ‘Me too,’ then her answer is going to be, ‘But I didn’t do this.’ Together we’re going to aim for a different conversation, a different exchange.”
The husband is flummoxed. “Okay,” he says. “How do I do that?”
“One of the things you can do that may be useful,” Perel says, “just reflect back. You just repeat to the other person: ‘So what I’m hearing you say is…’ That forces you to stay on the other side a little bit longer. You don’t have to agree with anything. You just have to be open and curious.”
In other words, you’ll have to override your natural impulse to jump in and start talking about all the ways your partner hurt you that were just as distressing as the way you hurt them. If you can manage that, you’ll be giving your partner some space and allowing them to feel heard.
The first thing I thought about when I reached this point in the episode was “mindful conversation,” a technique I learned in an emotional-intelligence course last fall. The gist is that Partner A stays completely silent while Partner B shares; A reflects on what they heard B say; and B clarifies anything that A misunderstood.
I didn’t learn about mindful conversation in the context of romantic relationships per se, but it seems like a handy skill for any couple struggling to communicate. (“Your communication is terrible,” Perel tells the couple towards the end of this episode.)
The strategy Perel’s suggesting is somewhat counterintuitive because you’re changing the natural flow of a conversation — or an argument. You have to actively prevent yourself from cutting the other person off and sharing your experience, no matter how much you want to.
In an aside, Perel tells listeners: “You have both people continuously saying, ‘You don’t understand how lonely I felt. And every time one person says, ‘I felt lonely,’ the other person says, ‘I felt more so.’ And it’s breaking that ‘the more, the more’ type of cycle where they compete rather than empathize.”