Advantages to Vantage Points
Relationships are the backbone of our emotional health. They are also the source of our emotional aches! So often it’s the people we love and find comfort in that 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 it’s the start of a cheesy fake commercial if I told you that you can?
Let’s take a look at a 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? Definitely! 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 would they actually do it? I don’t think they can… yet.
What’s missing? What’s preventing them from connecting in this interaction? Let’s try to understand what’s really happening between them. He arrived late. What does that really mean to her? How’s she interpreting that? Well, to her 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 of that appraisal of his behavior, she’s feeling really hurt and sad. And it’s coming out towards 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 invokes in her. He knows how hard it was for him to take the time off of work to meet her 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. He can’t ever seem to get it right. I’m not good enough for her, and she doesn’t want me to be around. In therapeutic terms, we would say he’s feeling unappreciated, even unloved. His appraisal of her actions and the feelings it evokes within him cause him to respond with distancing, pulling away from her. His distancing is then appraised by her as if she’s going even further from being important and prioritized 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! What can be done to get out? What could this couple have done differently? How could they get out of this place? How can they see the depth of what’s really going on underneath the external behaviors that are so triggering?
A great Sage of the Talmud, Hillel, 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. He doesn’t realize how much it impacted her! When he would figure that out, he could better address those feelings and also understand why she’s so upset. And if she would step into his place to view the scene from his vantage point before making any judgement calls, she would see how important it is to him that she recognize his efforts to meet her there. She would see how important it is to him to feel her appreciation and love for his efforts to be there with her. She would see how painful her harsh remarks are being taken by him, and she would understand why he’s distancing because of them.
We all have people we’re close with, and we all have rocky moments in our relationships with them. We can truly take to heart the advice of Hillel the Sage 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.