No matter how loving or profound a relationship between two people might be, there will inevitably be a difference in opinion and/or values at some point. These differences in opinion can lead to relatively minor things like silly little arguments between you and the other that you eventually joke about, or they can lead to large scale bouts of all out war which culminate in divorce, nasty legal battles, and so on. While there are some select few who seem to have a repeat pattern of damaging their relationships because of a naturally querulous streak, it is often the case that many people with a history of broken relationships are perfectly good natured. You might be thinking… “Damn that makes no sense… what gives?” I know exactly what you mean and for the record, I agree with you. I think the key to this mystery is to understand and accept that there is a difference between being a terrible person and being a perfectly good person who just happens to be terrible at relating to others.
While personal attributes such as having a pleasing personality and being trustworthy can aid our ability to relate well and make lasting connections with others, they are often not sufficient to maintain a long term connection with other people. Although it doesn’t seem like any one attribute in particular is the key to success in all long term relationships, it is becoming clearer and clearer to me that empathy is of pivotal importance as the years roll on.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines empathy as: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another of either the past or present. Why is this important to keeping a healthy relationship? Well because it is rarely ever the case that either person in a conflict thinks they are in the wrong. Quite to the contrary, both sides in most conflicts are usually convinced to the very bone that they are absolutely in the right. Now that being said, there are a select few who are just fundamentally unreasonable by nature and to whom logic and reason don’t apply. Assuming you are dealing with mostly reasonable people however, developing a clearer understanding of where the other side is coming from will go a long way towards preventing unnecessary conflict.
Let’s consider an imaginary example to explain what all this means. Consider a man who is left absolutely stunned by the divorce papers he just got served by his soon to be ex-wife’s attorney. He can’t for the life of him understand what he could have done to precipitate such a strong reaction from his wife. After all, he never cheated on her, never physically abused her, and consistently made sure he did his bit to ensure that there was always food on the table. Although our imaginary husband in this scenario may be a perfectly good person who doesn’t engage in any obviously bad behavior, he is only seeing things from his point of view. Perhaps what he is failing to consider is the numerous times in the past when he did little things that annoyed his wife, and ignored her when she repeatedly tried to tell him about them in a respectful manner. Perhaps she complained about him not cleaning up the toilet seat after he used it, leaving splashes of urine on it for her to constantly clean up. Perhaps this annoyance was exacerbated even further by the fact that she routinely spent long days chasing the children around the house and caring for them with little to no help from him. Sure, a little urine dribble around the toilet seat might not bother him, but they bothered her. If he had enough empathy to emotionally put himself in his wife’s shoes, he might have been able to understand the magnitude of pain he was causing her, and worked hard to alter his behavior. It is likely that every single time his wife saw urine on the toilet seat, it felt as if her husband didn’t respect her or care enough about her feelings to take action. If this happens too many times, it can become a fatal emotional wound to any relationship.
In theory, it sounds like a good idea to always consider the needs of the people around you. In practice however, you risk morphing into a frustrated doormat if you always let people walk all over you. So how do you deal with this? In all honesty, I cannot claim to know exactly how to perfectly manage this quandary but I do know that being clear on what you value most in your life helps a lot. For instance, if your best friend wants you to accompany him to a party that you don’t really want to go to, you might want to consider going because it means a lot to him and isn’t likely to seriously hurt you in any way. However, if that same friend wants you to stop drinking your morning fruit and vegetable smoothie for whatever reason, that is a different story altogether because your health is probably much more important than any friendship.
While writing this blog entry, a story I heard by lantern light as a young boy in Nigeria came to mind which I think really exemplifies the moral of this story. It was a story about three men who were told they’d be put in a room with a rather large object. One by one, each man would be let into the room, with the task of deciphering what the object in the room was using only their hands. The first man entered the room and used his hands to feel around. After a couple of minutes, he came out and reported that the object was hard, with a rather pointy sharp edge… somewhat of a phallic symbol. The second man came out with the observation that the same object was very long and flexible… reminiscent of a snake. The third man came out with the observation that the object was very large and soft. On the surface, it seems like all three men were describing very different things… so at least two of them had to be wrong. No? Well in truth, they were all right… they were just “looking” at the same elephant from different points of view. The first one felt the elephant’s tusks, the second man felt the elephant’s tail, and the third one felt the elephant’s belly. None of them were wrong in the objective sense of the word… they all simply came away with different impressions because they all had different points of view. In the same way, the people in your life may not necessarily be “wrong” you might just have to strive to better understand them and vice versa. From all of us here at chubaoyolu.org, please take care of yourselves and each other.
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.
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