Under the layers of habits, distractions, and defenses, we share in common a tender heart and universal needs for love, honor, safety, celebration and more. Unfortunately, this isn't always easy to see or to remember.
When you are caught in reactivity around your own pain and behaving from that place, it can be quite difficult to notice the impact of your behavior on your partner. In fact, one of the easiest ways to spot a couple in pain is to look for how much they notice each other. A person in pain rarely looks up to see what is happening for the other person. For example, if one partner is tearing up with compassion for the other, this is often missed. Even the available support can't be taken in, deepening the cycle of disconnect.
Realizing the impact of your behavior requires a willingness to look up even while you are pain and to get curious about your partner's experience. Sometimes your partner doesn't communicate the impact clearly, so it takes a fair amount of mindfulness on your part to remember that under the layers of habits and defenses, there is a tender heart that is deeply affected by what you do.
Here is a tragic example that has a good ending. I was working with a couple about driving together. The man in this partnership was from a country in Europe where speed limits are much higher than here in the States where his wife was from. For 25 years of marriage she had been asking him to slow down. For 25 years he could only hear her making demands and criticizing him. At first, in our session, they went back and forth arguing as they had done all those years. I helped them both to slow down and connect with feelings and needs. After several rounds of me offering empathy and helping with mindfulness, the man was able to give his wife his undefended attention and she was able to express the fear she felt when he was driving. Hearing her for the first time, he immediately began weeping. He said that he had not known the impact of his behavior on his wife and of course he wants his wife to feel safe with him. They both wept for the years of fear and disconnect and also celebrated that they could come together in a new way.
You can prevent and interrupt cycles of pain, by regularly checking in about the the impact of your behavior on your partner. Bringing this kind of curiosity opens the door for empathy and negotiation so that your relationship can be a place where you get to be fully you and have a positive impact on your partner.
Realizing impact is also about discerning the difference between shame and self-responsibility. In shame, you make yourself wrong for having a negative impact on your partner. In self-responsibility, you meet yourself with compassion, trusting in your intention to benefit others, while having the courage to accept that it doesn't always happen that way. And lastly, you remember that being in relationship is not a mandate to behave perfectly so the other person never gets upset. Being in relationship is an ongoing collaboration to create a fulfilling and authentic life together.
It's the little things that count. This week experiment with checking in about little things, like a moment when you used a harsh tone, or told your partner what he or she was doing wrong, or showed up late for a date, etc.
A smaller step could be just to notice moments when you feel defensive and start to justify or explain. These are often moments when you could pause and get curious and offer empathy for the impact of your behavior on your partner.