Relationships are the backbone of our emotional health, yet they are also the source of our emotional aches. So often the people we love and find comfort in are the cause for our distress, and it usually comes from a communication we had with them that went awry.
Wouldn't it be nice to just feel a strong bond and closeness constantly with everyone we're near to? Would you think this blog post is the start of a cheesy fake commercial if I told you that you can?
Let's take a look at a rather typical argument between a young couple that had a moment of conflict when they rendezvoused for lunch and he arrived late:
She says, "We said we'd meet for lunch at noon. It's almost 12:30! You're almost a half hour late."
He says, "I'm sorry for being late, and it's only 12:19. I assumed you realized it was going to be hard for me to get out to the suburbs from the city on a weekday from work."
She responds, "Well, if you couldn't come here on time, than you should've told me so I wouldn't have messed up my whole day!"
He responds, "Fine! Then I just won't even try to come out here to meet you next time!"
She replies, "I'm sorry for yelling. I just wish you wouldn't make promises you can't keep. It really messes up my schedule!"
And he replies, "I'm leaving!"
What went wrong here? Who messed up? Was it his fault for arriving late? Was it her fault for not forgiving or being appreciative that he made the effort to get there? Could either of them have said something to the other that could've fixed the situation?
She could've been more accepting about his tardiness, and he could've accepted her apology and offered to try to be more on time next time, but I don't think they are capable, not yet.
Let's try to understand what's really happening between them. He arrived late. What does that really mean to her? Well, it might feel as if he doesn't care about her or prioritize her in his busy life. In couples therapy, we call that a feeling of abandonment. Because she appraises his behavior that way, she's feeling really hurt and sad. And it's coming out at him as anger.
On the other side, he's experiencing her anger. He doesn't have a clue about her interpretation of his behavior and the profound sadness it evokes. It was hard for him to take the time off work to meet for lunch, and all he sees in response is that she's very upset with him. His appraisal of her criticism and anger is that he messed up and he can't ever seem to get it right. In therapeutic terms, we would say he's feeling unappreciated, even unloved. His feelings cause him to respond by pulling away from her. She then appraises his distancing to mean she's even less important and a priority to him. The abandonment feelings get stronger, the anger comes out harsher, and the nasty cycle spirals onward.
All relationships with our loved ones -- parents, friends, spouses, and children -- have patterns, and sometimes these patterns can get ugly. How can they see the depth of what's really going on underneath the external behaviors that are so triggering?
Hillel, a great sage of the Talmud almost 2,000 years ago, addressed this exact topic. He said, "Do not judge your friend until you have arrived at his place." Hillel is addressing the question, "What goes wrong in relationships?" And he answers, "You are 'judging' it from the wrong vantage point!" If you want to truly appraise the situation, you must look at it from the other person's perspective. Once you can see it from their paradigm, then you can truly judge the situation properly.
If he would step into her place and view the situation from her vantage point before making a judgment, he would see how hurt she is feeling from his late arrival. When he see how much it impacts her, he can better address those feelings and also understand why she's so upset. And if she would step into his place before making any judgment, she would see how important it is to him that she recognizes his efforts to meet her there. She would see how important it is to him to feel her appreciation and love for his effort and understand why he's distancing because of them.
We can truly take to heart the advice of Hillel and not judge our loved ones until we have fully arrived and put ourselves in their place. Then, from that vantage point, with the understanding of what's really happening, we can stay close to the ones we love.
Joshua Marder is a Rabbi & Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. Josh is the director of Chicago YJP, a Division of the Lois & Wilfred Lefkovich Chicago Torah Network.