July 17, 2020

Dear Drama Observers,

I’ve told the story before of a couple I worked with once. Their presenting complaint was that they were “stuck” and needed help getting unstuck. When I asked if they had ever succeeded in getting unstuck before, they recounted this experience from their early weeks of marriage.

While dating, she was attracted to his kind-heartedness. He’s a very accommodating individual and makes it a point to meet the needs of those around him as best he can. People at his place of employment love him because of the pleasant work environment he creates. He’s a genuinely nice guy.

He was attracted to her organizational ability and the orderly manner in which she conducts her life. The phrase, “A place for everything and everything in its place,” was created for people like her. She grew up to become an administrative assistant and few things ever fall through the cracks under her watch. She’s a truly well-organized person.

So, Mr. Accommodation married Miss Administration.

In keeping with her need for structure, she suggested that they divide up responsibilities—she would cook and he would clean. In keeping with his accommodating ways, he agreed and was fine with that arrangement. All was right with the world, or so they thought.

After supper one night, he was loading the dishwasher and she came in to watch how he did it. She then began critiquing his methods, suggesting that he turn the bowls this way instead of that and to put the knives in one slot and forks and spoons in the others. This went on for several nights.

After a week or so, he turned to her one evening and said the following:

I told you that I would clean up after supper and I’m more than happy to do so. But if you’re going to come in every night to scrutinize and critique my every move, I may just start sitting on the couch.

This testy expression was followed by some defensiveness on her part and they were momentarily stuck. But they talked it through, worked it out, and got unstuck.

I previously told this story to illustrate this principle: Relationships reveal and heal weaknesses. Allow me to explain:

This situation required of him something that he had too little of—assertiveness. His accommodation muscle was Olympic strength, but his assertiveness muscle was atrophied from years of disuse. But he cared so much about his marriage that he exercised an atrophied muscle and became a more balanced version of himself.

Meanwhile, she also needed to exercise a muscle she had rarely used: flexibility. She was a naturally structured person but not naturally flexible and this situation required the flexibility she lacked. But she cared so much about the marriage that she exercised an atrophied muscle and became a better version of herself.

Thus, the relationship had revealed their weaknesses but then healed the very weaknesses that had been revealed.

Relationships are like full-length mirrors in which we catch glimpses of our shortcomings, weaknesses, and character flaws. But if we care enough about the relationship, we’ll work to strengthen those areas of weakness and, in the process, become better versions of ourselves. That’s what’s supposed to happen in well-functioning relationships.

So, my first point is that relationships reveal and heal weaknesses.

Here’s my second point: Empathy is what drives us to strengthen our weaknesses.

Empathy is the fourth of the five qualities we’ve been discussing needed to make relationships function well. The stance of empathy is this: It bothers me if something about me bothers you. Empathy is what enables us to crawl over into the perspective of the other side and see things from their point of view. It’s what Atticus Finch was referring to when he told Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

Empathy was the driver behind the previously-mentioned couple’s change for the better. In effect, she was saying to him: “It bothers me if my rigidity hurts you, so I’ll try to be more flexible.” In effect, he was saying to her: “If my accommodating nature causes me to avoid bringing things up that might help us (and therefore you), I need to work on being more assertive.”

Empathy is not just some ooey-gooey quality that allows us to “be more in touch with our feelings.” It’s an essential ingredient for relational functioning. Empathy means listening, but there’s more to it than that. It means laying aside your predetermined ideas, crawling inside the other’s perspective, and understanding where they’re coming from.

Empathy deficiency, on the other hand, is one of the chief characteristics of Drama People which is why relationships with them are so difficult. Being in a relationship with an empathy-deficient Drama Person is like being in a car with no brakes or in a plane with one wing. A relational crash lies somewhere up ahead.

The Drama Person’s stance is: “I’m not concerned about hurting you; I’m only concerned about you hurting me.” Their lack of empathy makes them self-centered and self-focused. That’s why we describe Drama People using phrases like:

  • It’s all about him, or
  • The world revolves around her.

Empathy and contention are like two ends of a seesaw. When empathy goes up, contention comes down and problems are more easily solved. But when the empathy side of the seesaw drops, the contention side goes up and relational issues reach no resolution.

Empathy deficiency characterizes some of our personal relationships, but we also see examples of it in the culture writ large—in our fractious political climate. When Team A shows no interest in understanding the perspective of Team B, Team B usually responds in kind. So, no agreements are ever reached and the battle rages on.

When empathy is down, contention is up. Empathy makes us better, but empathy deficiency makes us devolve into worse versions of ourselves. Until the seesaw tilts the other way, we’ll never become the “more perfect union” about which our Constitution speaks.

Till next week.

6 replies
  1. Allison McNeese
    Allison McNeese says:

    Excellent column…as always!

    I hope you won’t mind my raising a minor point.

    I have never understood why the honorific often used for single females (‘Miss’) indicates marital status, when that used for males (‘Mr .’) has never done so.

    This is not intended as a feminist rant (!)…but as a lifelong single woman I have been glad that ”Ms.’ has become more and more widely accepted.

    I remember my positive reaction when _The New York Times_ announced its decision to use the more egalitarian ‘Ms.’ in the 1980s. 🙂

    Reply
    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      That’s a very good point, Allison. I actually use Ms. in other things I write but old habits die hard, I guess. I appreciate your calling my attention to it.

      Reply

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