I once worked with a couple suffering from on-going conflict. As Part of the emotional intelligence assessment, I asked the man, John, to state his primary concerns about his wife’s behavior. He explained that his wife, Katie, would, become wildly emotional and hostile with out provocation. He went on to explain that she was unable to discuss her behavior after the fact or accept responsibility for her harmful words and actions. The woman sat listening attentively and appeared moved by what her husband said. I then continued with the emotional intelligence assessment by asking the woman, Katie, to explain in her own words what her husband’s concerns were about her behavior. As part of a life coaching exercise, Katie explained that John was concerned primarily with her difficulty keeping up with housework, that she had gained weight and was less interested in sex. As she spoke, John looked deflated. When it was pointed out how vastly different these two accounts were, John withdrew and Katy grew angry and felt “ganged up on.”
To understand how these discrepancies develop we must take a look at two toddlers playing in a sand box. From a distance, they seem to be playing nicely together. They both have trucks, they both make vroom vroom noises and both are quiet and happy. We might say that they are “good friends” or that they “play well together.” However, a closer look reveals something different. The children are not exactly playing “together.” Yes, they are both in close proximity to one another. Yes, they both have trucks and therefore share a common interest. Yes, they are both making vroom vroom noises but no, they are not really interacting.
This is what child development experts refer to as “parallel play.” Toddlers are too young to respond to another’s needs or even understand that another person’s perspective is different than their own. Although they play in the same sand box, they do not have the ability to consider the other’s feelings. They both have trucks but the trucks are working separately, engaged in different activities. It requires emotional intelligence skills to make it to the next level of relating to someone else.
Most children learn to develop more complex behaviors that incorporate others into their play. For example, one child plows the road into the village and the other child uses the same road to bring supplies into the village. Another example involves one child driving a toy police car and playing the role of the “cop,” while the other child decides to play the role of the “robber” and gets chased.
The children in these examples are beginning to interact with one another. Building on these skills lead to interpersonal connection. Adults risk feeling judged and rejected when they disclose personal information. When another person acknowledges this vulnerability and responds in a loving and non-judgmental manner, a connection is established. Connections like this lead to trust, intimacy and closeness in relationships. These emotional intelligence skills are the building blocks for healthy relationships.
John and Katie were both professionals making a good income. Both enjoyed similar leisure activities and both had congruent aspirations for the future with regards to continuing education and preparing for retirement. The two adults appeared to “play well together” yet both were suffering from a lack of emotional connection. In the example above, Katie failed miserably when asked to repeat her husband’s concerns. John in turn had similar challenges in understanding Katie.
Just as the toddlers in the sandbox appear to be “good friends” and to be “playing nicely together,” adults often appear to make a great couple at first glance. However, a closer look at a couple’s interactions may reveal more pain than is apparent to the outside observer. Two adults share equally in the division of household labor. They both contribute financially to the maintenance of the household. They even share similar interests and upbringing, yet they both feel lonely and unappreciated. Goleman Emotional Intelligence gives a number of reasons for this.
Authentic connection requires understanding another person’s perspective. Most adults believe they consider their partner’s thoughts and feelings when negotiating personal needs. Surprisingly most are not as skilled at this process as they believe. One quick test to determine how good you are at this is to ask your partner. State what you believe to be their opinion or how you think they feel about a situation. If you are correct, they will let you know. If you’ve missed the boat, work on your listening skills. If your partner reports something very different than was said. If you learn something that makes you feel uncomfortable the second time around, chances are you’re on the right track. Take the risk that your partner will understand your discomfort and feel the connection.