Understanding vs. Agreeing: why disagreement can be so upsetting

by kattiewampus

Empathy. It is a concept that is often misunderstood (empathy vs. sympathy) and too often underrated. I touched on it yesterday and today’s article is the perfect follow-up to that post. This article focuses on the difference between understanding your partner’s viewpoint and agreeing with your partner’s viewpoint – and why it is so important for us to feel understood.

In Relationships, Understanding—Not Agreement—Is Key, Why?

I will admit, when I first started reading the article, I was skeptical for about the first four paragraphs. It sounded very relativistic and seemed to be advocating a “what’s true for you may not be true for me” approach. As someone who believes in absolute truth and who believes that relativism by definition is self-invalidating, I felt like the article was drawing on pop psychology and “feel-good” strategies that I did not necessarily condone.

But then I got to the following paragraph-

“But what’s key to grasp here is that as long as you’re not actively refuting (or grimacing at) your partner’s rival point of view, you’re simply admitting to them that you don’t—or can’t—think and feel as they do. In refusing to argue over something that the two of you can’t possibly agree on, you’re acting in a way that protects the all-important friendship and rapport between you.”

-and I was inevitably intrigued. From that point on, in my opinion, the article just got better. It shed new light on the concept of differences by offering a more practical perspective:

“Candidly discussing your differences—which are unavoidable (if only because, potentially, there are just so many things to differ on!)—hardly needs to compromise your connection. In fact, if you’re only willing to talk about what’s consensual between the two of you, you’ll end up with a pretty superficial, and frankly dishonest, relationship.”

Myth 1: differences are a bad sign in a relationship. Myth 2: compatibility is defined by what you have in common. But the article goes even further to dissect the dilemma of differences, getting to the heart of why differences between us and our partner can seem, on the surface, like a potential warning sign:

“It’s therefore essential to keep in mind that in any close relationship, disagreements are inevitable—and that this really isn’t such a bad thing. What makes such dissent so frequently cause distress in you and your partner is that, subliminally, each of you may feel emotionally threatened by it. It’s almost as though your partner’s differing with your position implies their disapproval of you.”

We misinterpret differences as disapproval. The reason why we arrive at this conclusion is because differences can lead to disagreements which can make us feel like our partner disapproves of us. We are so sensitive to this because disapproval is similar to rejection, and the last person we want to be rejected by is our significant other.

“Disagreements can be experienced as mini-rejections. Which is why they’re apt to be argued about repeatedly—and mindlessly. And when such conflicts become heated, and each of you has regressed to the point that you absolutely have to be right, neither of you may feel you have the “luxury” of validating the other’s viewpoint.”

And that is why the steps that we talked about yesterday, while seeming so simple and straightforward, are actually so challenging to put into practice – and so important. It also offers additional insight into why couples argue about the same things over and over again.

Notice how the article describes the dangerous downward spiral that can then occur:

“If your now antagonist/partner refuses to confirm the subjective legitimacy of your viewpoint, you’re probably, deep down, going to experience a more general sense of alienation from—or even abandonment by—them. And in such a disorganized state of mind and emotion, you’ll likely be compelled to mitigate such upsetting feelings by categorically dismissing—or totally invalidating—their perspective.”

When we withhold empathy from our partner by not making an effort to understand their point of view in a conflict, their viewpoint of us can actually change to the extreme of seeing us as their antagonist – their enemy! When disagreements are mishandled, this is the frightening result which can occur. The “nothings” that provoke conflict among couples can lead to situations where two people who love and care for each other find themselves pitted against one another. This is the antithesis of creating a stable, secure relationship.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

“It’s so crucial that both of you make the effort to genuinely appreciate—and open-heartedly accept—the other’s position. That way a conflict in your viewpoint hardly need lead to a conflict in your relationship.”

The real enemy is when you let your differences destroy your relationship by giving into petty disagreements that undermine your sense of stability and trust. Fixating on the point of conflict rather than on your partner as a whole person will almost inevitably end in one of you rejecting the other. It’s the 80/20 rule on multiple different levels. If I may make a generalization here: in your average relationship, 80% of it will be “good” and 20% will be “bad.” You and your partner will be 80% “similar” and 20% “different.” Things may not always be good (or easy), but they won’t always be bad (or difficult), either. It is up to you whether you will learn how to weather the rough times when they come, or let the storm tear you apart. Where there are two people, there are inevitably differences and disagreements. But where there are two people, there is also the potential for understanding, connection, and community.