While feelings are a central component to caring, caring is not an entirely emotional experience. There’s also an intellectual component to caring, a mental stance that one must maintain to create lasting closeness. This stance is that your partner is fully human.
I wouldn’t blame you if you giggled a little when you read that. Of course you know that other people are human. But I bet you forget all the time. You forget when you have to ask your husband fourteen times to take out the trash. You forget when your best friend has had one too many drinks and humiliates you. You forget when your brother’s in one of his neurotic, anxious states. You forget when your business partner is depressed and doesn’t know why.
Remembering that your partner is human through and through is a conscious action, just like knowing and caring are. It’s a stance — a frame of mind — that you actively hold, even when it’s difficult. Why? Because you both reap profound benefits from honoring each other’s humanity.
Recognizing the Humanity in Others
Viewing another person as human is the same thing as being able to recognize humanity in him or her. Humanity means that your partner, like you, belongs to the collective human family. This extremely simple fact is an important starting point because in it lies one of the most useful resources for creating closeness: realizing that other people are a lot like you.
When you’re remembering the humanity of your partner, you’re reaffirming that, yes, she is special and precious, just like all human life is. She is not thrown out of the human family just because she’s being annoying right now.
But there is a flip side to the term humanity. We are special and valuable, but we are also deeply flawed. “I’m only human” is synonymous with “I’m weak” or “I messed up.” Humanity means having the potential to be transcendent, but it is also means being all-but-fated to make mistakes.
These three aspects of humanity are essential to keep in mind when you’re learning how to care about another person well: your partner is like you, she is inherently precious, and she will mess up. Holding this viewpoint allows us to care about another person fully and honestly as another human.
Separate the Person from the Problem
Once you’ve adopted the frame of mind that the person with whom you’re creating closeness is human, the first thing you do to start treating him as a full human is to separate the person from the problem.
Separating the person from the problem means that your partner is not the same as her overeating, her lateness, or her shyness, and that she is not the same as the problems in the relationship that her partner might typically chalk up to being “her fault.”
We conflate people with problems so much that we hardly understand the difference. This tendency is much more pervasive than we realize. Look at how we speak about people in normal life. Sandy sometimes shows up to meetings late, so Sandy is irresponsible. Sarah usually takes charge of the situation, so Sarah is controlling.
This happens in all contexts. Our adult children aren’t where we thought they would be at their age, so they are lazy. Our team is going to miss our deadline because of our art director. I have a guest sleeping over at my house every night because my husband is codependent.
I’ve seen evidence in my work that we as a culture are starting to realize that this is an unproductive way of talking about other people. There is psychological evidence as well. Research done on couples indicates that those who are happiest in their relationships tend to separate their spouse from problems organically, without knowing they’re “supposed” to.
Let’s return to the simple examples above.
- Our adult children aren’t where we thought they would be at their age, so they are lazy.
- Our team is going to miss our deadline because of our art director.
- I have a guest sleeping over at my house every night because my husband is codependent.
What are some other ways to present these scenarios?
- My adult children are human; and my expectations of how their lives would progress turned out to be inaccurate.
- My team’s art director is human; and we didn’t anticipate all the delays to getting this project done.
- My husband is human; and I’m not getting any personal space in my house.
Notice how all these statements use the word and, not but. Both parts of the statement can be true at the same time. We can be humans, and there can be problems.
Separating the person from the problem isn’t just a philosophical concept, and it’s not as simple as just being compassionate. You’re not just doing this to be nice. There are very practical reasons to think this way.
What does viewing the above situations in these new ways allow us to do? It allows us to continue being close to our adult children while consciously reevaluating our expectations. It allows us to continue showing our art director respect while committing to make more accurate timetables going forward. It allows us to continue to love and admire our husband while making changes to provide ourselves with more personal space.
A Profound Shift
Separating the person from the problem allows us to go easy on the person and hard on the problem. This is a profound shift. We no longer need to be trapped in the conundrum of whether we should treat the person who’s “disappointing us” or “upsetting us” nicely or sternly — whether we should show him love or tough love...or just yell, intimidate, and cajole.
Always treat the person with love. Always treat the problem as if you’re determined to destroy it.
The challenge of separating the person from the problem is being able to notice — and resist — the compulsion to meld things he does with who he is. We very rarely know the reasons why one does what he does, unless we make the concerted effort to understand. So how can it be right to construct “who he is” from our experience of what he’s doing?
Problems are real. Sometimes problems do arise from your partner’s actions. But distance inevitably creeps into a relationship when you start attributing that problem to a character flaw in that person. It becomes increasingly more difficult to care about a person whose inherent self you see as problematic.
There is another significant benefit to separating your partner from the problem: once the problem is considered separate from either of you, the two of you can work together to destroy it. The team now has two symbiotic incentives: to remain a close, united team and to utterly demolish the problem. With your incentives aligned, you can put all your energy into defeating the problem... as opposed to defeating your partner, whom you are trying to be close to.
Let’s think about how two people who view each other as at least part of the problem try to solve a mutual problem. Usually, they compromise.
Compromising isn’t ideal because it implies that the solution to the problem lies somewhere on a linear spectrum. If I get more of what I want, you get less of what you want. Someone ends up being the winner, while the other ends up the loser. This is not caring. This is how resentments start to percolate...and resentments are a fierce enemy of caring.
Understanding, Rather Than Compromising
Let’s look at the partnership of two men we’ll call Josh and Tyler. Josh and Tyler were friends who founded a start-up together and also lived together. Josh liked to invite his friends over to the house every night. Tyler didn’t feel particularly comfortable with it but figured being social was just “who Josh is.” Josh, in return, assumed being antisocial was just “who Tyler is.”
Not wanting to make either person change who he was, they had stopped trying to discuss this problem. Both actually thought they were being compassionate by not bringing it up, by not trying to make anyone change. But that didn’t mean they weren’t still unhappy with the situation — they both were. They just had no idea how to resolve it.
Over time, the tension this problem was causing started to affect their business. Something needed to be done. So Tyler took the first step and asked Josh a very spacious, nicely balanced question: “What is wanting to have friends over about for you?”
Josh revealed that his desire to have people over was less about the people themselves and more about finding a way to stop working. Once the friends came over, he felt justified in not working anymore that night. He and Tyler worked a lot...often all night. Sometimes Josh just needed to take a break, and the friends afforded him that.
Josh then returned the question: “What does avoiding the friend gatherings get you?” Interestingly, Tyler revealed he was actually yearning for the same thing — he simply expressed it in a different way. When he’d retreat to his room to avoid socializing, it was his way of taking a break. His version of taking a break simply didn’t involve people.
Now they had gotten somewhere! The problem was not that “Josh is too social” or that “Tyler is too antisocial.” They are both human, and they have a shared problem: they need to allow themselves to take breaks from working.
Knowing that, they could start coming up with solutions to the problem. The options were not just: Josh gets to have his friends over, Josh wins; Josh doesn’t get to have his friends over, Tyler wins; or, Josh gets to have his friends over less frequently, and both guys win a little and lose a little.
They could instead come up with useful, creative, sustainable solutions that really address the underlying need. And because they’re doing it together, they’ll likely come up with a bigger, broader list of options than either would get to alone. Better yet, brainstorming can be a real bonding experience!
Maybe Josh starts going over to his friends’ houses instead of inviting them to his. Maybe they agree to work no more than ten hours a day. Maybe they consider not living together anymore, so when they leave the office they’re done for the night. There are endless possibilities for solutions. Solutions are only limited by the team’s creative thinking.
Forgiving the Person, Not the Problem
Forgiveness, by my definition of the word, means forgiving the person, not the problem. The problem still needs to be resolved. But forgiveness is the ultimate form of going soft on a person. It’s essential for caring about someone well because everyone makes mistakes. Your partner will have moments of carelessness and will sometimes fall short of her best self. Forgiveness is caring...when the other person needs it most.
Forgiving is just one way to show someone you care.
©2016 by Kira Asatryan, All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New World Library, Novato, CA 94949. newworldlibrary.com
About the Author
Kira Asatryan is a certified relationship coach who provides individual life coaching, relationship coaching, conflict mediation, and couples’ coaching. She also trains Silicon Valley startups to work cohesively. Prior to becoming a full-time relationship coach and writer, she ran marketing campaigns across major platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Google Search. She is a popular blogger on Psychology Today and other sites. Visit her at www.StopBeingLonely.com