3 Reasons Empathy Is Vital For The Solidifying Of Business Partnerships

Empathy is vital for the forming, strengthening and maintenance of long-term, highly effective ... [+]..Getty Images

When it comes to the traits that help solidify business partnerships, attributes like trust and a willingness to collaborate to find win-win solutions can play a key role in building a strong, mutually beneficial relationship.

But how do you get to that foundation of trust and collaboration in the first place? Quite often, it comes down to empathy — or the ability to detect and understand the feelings of others.

Empathy is often confused with sympathy, but it goes so much deeper than that. Sympathy is essentially a sense of pity when someone else is distressed. Empathy, on the other hand, is seeking to truly understand what another person feels, and demonstrate the compassion and understanding they need to feel valued and appreciated.

When leaders better understand what empathy is and how it can make a difference in their business relationships, they can position themselves to participate in more meaningful and successful partnerships.

1. Empathy Considers How Different Factors Affect the Partnership

While empathy is often described as “walking in someone else’s shoes,” true empathy — especially in the business world — can and should be much more than that. As Brené Brown, renowned researcher and host of the Dare to Lead podcast explained in an interview with Conant Leadership, “Our job is that when people tell us the experience of being in their shoes, we believe them — even when it’s different from our lived experience.”

As Brown explained, regardless of who a leader is talking to, their response should be to believe the experiences and feelings of others, “even when [they] can’t reconcile it with [their] own experience.”

This mindset is especially important when setting expectations for a business partnership. A variety of internal and external factors could affect the viability and results of a partnership — even things such as a partner’s geographic location, capacity or turnover of staff members.

Empathetic leaders consider the capacities and limitations of partners when setting goals, making adjustments as needed to ensure mutually beneficial outcomes.

2. Empathy Drives Open Communication and Shared Goals

Empathy helps ensure successful partnerships because it requires a sense of vulnerability that is often absent from the working world.

As clinician and behavioral psychologist Natanya Wachtel explained to me, “Displaying empathy allows others to open up to you and honestly communicate their challenges, successes, motives and more. And of course, you should be willing to reciprocate. This leads to more meaningful conversations that help us understand each other as people — not just providers of a good or service. This provides a level of depth and meaning to the relationship that helps everyone truly desire shared success.”

In a business partnership, this level of openness and transparency can help partners identify opportunities for growth and determine whether their contributions are meeting expectations. Even more importantly, it ensures that both parties remain fully committed toward a common goal.

Empathetic business partners seek to be truly transparent with those they work with. There’s no withholding information to try to gain the upper hand. You recognize that these are real people who are working with you to achieve a shared goal. As a result, you are willing to be vulnerable and communicate what needs to be shared so that everyone has the resources they need to succeed.

3. Empathy Allows for Better Resolutions When Disagreements Arise

Even in the most successful partnerships, disagreements, conflicts and other setbacks are bound to arise eventually. It’s easy to see this in the music world — once could argue that among the many reasons attributed to the breakup of The Beatles, a lack of empathy was certainly a deciding factor.

Rather than trying to understand the different perspectives of the other band members, the group allowed conflict to gradually overtake the feeling of camaraderie and collaboration that had defined their earlier years.

In a business partnership, a lack of empathy can lead to similar collapses. Lower than expected results and deviations from the goals of a partnership can cause business partners to raise barriers and stonewall each other in a time when they should be more open and empathetic than ever.

With a truly empathetic mindset, partners will proactively open lines of communication to understand what went wrong when these setbacks occur. This isn’t done to verbally lash out at the partner. Instead, it is done with the goal of finding a collaborative solution to improve the partnership and get things back on track.

While there may be some circumstances where ending the partnership will be the best solution, quite often, approaching these challenges with empathy will help you explore alternative ways to strengthen and fix what was previously a successful business relationship.

Do Better With Empathy

While developing empathy may seem like a challenge, there’s a reason why leaders like Brené Brown are so committed to teaching it: this is a skill that you can learn. Just like any other skill you rely on to succeed in business, Brown has said that empathy is “a teachable skill set. It’s not something that you either have or you don’t.”

With the understanding of the very real impact empathy can have on your business partnerships and other relationships, there’s never been a better time to develop this skill.

Source: 3 Reasons Empathy Is Vital For The Solidifying Of Business Partnerships

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Related contents:

Video: From Jacindamania to an empty tank: How NZ PM’s empathy defined her role Sky News

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The Power of Empathy in the Workplace

iStock Image -1023552044

We’ve all had those moments of pure attention, when it seems everyone in the room is attracted to your energy. Yet for many of us, that place is difficult to tap into. Your mind races with nervousness about something previously said and you worry about what to say next, each distraction lessening the power of your interaction.

The key to success in these moments is empathy. This ability to understand and relate to others is a powerful skill that takes work, but in mastering it, you can better both your personal and professional interactions.

Related: Use these five elements of psychology to improve your writing.

The Power of Empathy

Empathy is about establishing trust by outwardly recognizing what someone else is experiencing. It’s difficult for people to fully engage in any interaction if they don’t feel that they are being heard and understood.

Think about how free and open your interactions are with close friends and family. Your conversations are super productive because you have each freed yourself to fully engage.

However, at work or in our other day-to-day interactions, we are naturally cautious. We withhold information, we don’t ask the tough questions, and it’s much harder to make decisions or resolve issues. That generally leads to subpar outcomes.

Four Steps for Practicing Empathy

1. Observe: Pay attention to voice, tone, body language, and the situation.
2. Listen: What feelings and emotions are being conveyed?
3. Interpret: What needs are behind those feelings and emotions?
4. Share: Openly state what you think you understand about the other person and ask for feedback to make sure you’re right.

Straightforward, right? Not exactly.

Why Listening is Scientifically a Struggle

Being a good empathizer is largely connected with being a good listener.

Chris Voss, former FBI negotiator and author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, explains that it’s a struggle to focus in attentive moments because listening is far from a passive activity. It is the most active thing you can do, and empathetic listening can power some of the most fundamental functions of your workplace.

If you struggle with listening, you are not alone. Renowned author and journalist Michael Pollan examined this difficulty in his recent book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence.

Pollan found that a major area of the brain known as the default mode network (DMN), which acts as an overseer keeping brain operations in check, is most likely the very operator that makes active listening so difficult.

How the DMN Works

The DMN is what kicks in when you have nothing to do. And it seems to be responsible for the construction of what we call the self or ego. It’s all that noise that comes pouring in when you’re in idle; the flood of thoughts about the past and future and myriad distractions that we often feel powerless to overcome. It can become who we are. It also leads to rumination and self-referential thinking, which is not conducive to empathy.

The DMN is powerful, but you are not powerless to resist it. Attention, focus, and active listening help quiet the ego, allowing you more effective listening.

Try this: Consistent meditation, even just 10 minutes a day, has been shown to decrease activity in the DMN, which then leads to better empathy.

Practicing Empathy in the Workplace

Empathy in the workplace is something I encourage the team at D Custom to actively practice. Here are some of the things it can power.

Empathy and Negotiating

While Voss’ FBI negotiations might not be the first place your mind goes in wondering where and how empathy might be better understood and applied, it is paramount in their field. As he notes, when preparing for a negotiation, it’s more important to concentrate on demeanor and state of mind rather than what you will say or do. This is empathy in all its glory.

Empathy and Trust

Empathy establishes trust, and establishing trust enables more productive working relationships. By practicing empathy in the workplace, you will expose goals and concerns more readily. And you cannot resolve issues until that comes from both sides.

Implementing empathy to build trust starts with recognizing people’s fears and validating them without passing judgment or offering a solution. If you do that in a consistent way as a team member or leader, you will get all manner of engagement from your team.

Empathy and Creativity

Empathy is about a genuine connection, and active listening is a gateway to thoughtful collaboration. Ideas come to light in a creative environment, and an attentive approach helps increase input so much that possibilities expand in a way they would not have otherwise.

Empathy can be a force for powerful relationships. From persuading groups to negotiating with terrorists to growing a fruitful community of coworkers, empathy emerges as an imminent provider of success. It’s wired into our psychology to the point that we can’t resist it. So be present and empathy will follow. From that, the possibilities are boundless.

By Paul Buckley

Source: The Power of Empathy in the Workplace | D Custom

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Related contents:

Britain’s leaders in workplace wellbeing recognised in national awards shortlist Wellbeing News

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How Empathic People Can Set Effective, Loving Boundaries

You’re a highly empathic person. You fully and intently listen to others. You tend to focus on others’ emotions, often feeling them more so than your own. In fact, it’s like you feel someone else’s pain deep inside your bones. It’s that visceral.

And you frequently find yourself utterly exhausted because tending to others comes more naturally to you than tending to yourself, according to Joy Malek, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in working with people who are intuitive, empathic, creative and highly sensitive.

And this struggle includes setting boundaries. Your discomfort with boundary setting may stem from these three reasons, Malek said: You don’t know your needs in the first place—and only realize that a boundary was necessary after the fact. You fear that the validation you receive for being so caring and nurturing will disappear, and when you say no, others will no longer see your value. And many of the suggestions on boundary setting stress assertiveness, which to you might actually feel aggressive.

So you have a tough time ending conversations when you’re tired, or declining requests when you’re completely drained and desperately need downtime. So you remain silent when you’re uncomfortable, or don’t ask for help when you’re hurting, too.

When you do try to set boundaries, you might find yourself over-apologizing, and minimizing your concerns so you can again focus on the other person’s feelings, Malek said.Ultimately, you conclude that you’re just “bad at boundaries.” In reality, however, “you haven’t found a style that feels organic to your nature.”

Here, Malek shared invaluable insight for setting boundaries that protect your needs and boundaries you feel good about.

Identify your own needs. “Empathic people can especially benefit from boundaries that put limits around the amount of time and energy we give to others,” Malek said. “Without these limits, we often find that our needs are met last, or not at all.”

Take the time to think about your needs. How much space and solitude do you need to feel your best? What genuinely refreshes and recharges you? What tends to drain you? What people tend to drain you? When do you feel your best? When do you feel your worst?

Start creating boundaries around your responses, and check in with yourself regularly. Because our needs change and evolve. You might check in with yourself every hour or so for only a few minutes. Then you might do a more thoughtful check-in every evening, and journal about your thoughts and feelings for 15 minutes.

Pause before saying yes. When someone asks you to do something, you might blurt out, “yes, of course!” without even thinking about it. Your automatic response is to help—and you might feel awkward saying anything other than yes. Plus, sometimes the other person creates a sense of urgency that doesn’t exactly exist (or we somehow feel one).

However, Malek suggested simply pausing before committing. You can always say, “I’m not sure. I need some time to think about that,” or “I need to check my schedule, but I’ll definitely let you know tomorrow.” “In that pause, we can ask ourselves how we actually feel, and whether we have the time, energy and desire to accept the request.” Which means that it’s totally OK if you have the time and energy but simply don’t want to. Your wants count, too.

Shift your perspective. When you want or need to say no, think about how you’d like someone to decline your request, Malek said. For instance, this might include expressing empathy for the other person, and explaining that you’re unable to meet their request, she said. What does this actually look like?

For instance, Malek shared these examples of kind, empathic personal boundaries:

  • “I know you’re hurting and I really want to be there for you, but the truth is that I’m struggling right now, too. I’m looking forward to supporting you once I’m back on my own feet, emotionally.”
  • “I’ve really enjoyed this conversation, and part of me doesn’t want it to end! I’m noticing, though, that I’m getting really tired, so I’m going to head home.”

Malek also shared these examples of professional boundaries:

  • “I’d really like to take that project on, but I know I’d be compromising the quality of the projects that are already on my plate. It’s my priority to do a great job with what you’ve entrusted to me.”
  • “I’m in the office during business hours Monday through Friday, and I return calls, texts and emails during those times. If you reach out in the evening or on a weekend, I’ll look forward to following up with you during the next business day.”

See reactions as valuable signs. Pay attention to how others react to your boundaries. Do they push against them? Do they have a hard time taking no for an answer? Do they make you feel guilty or bad about yourself in some other way? Do they take you seriously or think your boundaries are unreasonable or don’t apply to them?

All of this is helpful information about the quality of that relationship, Malek said. Of course, it really hurts when the people we love and care for don’t have the same consideration for us.

However, “It makes sense to invest more in relationships where our boundaries and needs are respected than in those where they are not.”

When you’re a highly empathic person, setting boundaries can feel impossible. But it can absolutely be done. The key is to find a style that works for you, and to keep practicing. Boundaries can be kind and loving—and remember, as Malek said, your needs are legitimate, too.

Also, don’t wait until you’re completely exhausted and overwhelmed to care for yourself and to protect your energy. Start setting boundaries that are respectful of yourself and your natural tendencies right now.

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Wikipedia and the Wisdom of Polarized Crowds

In 2013, James Evans, a University of Chicago sociologist and computational scientist, launched a study to see if science forged a bridge across the political divide. Did conservatives and liberals at least agree on biology and physics and economics? Short answer: No. “We found more polarization than we expected,” Evans told me recently.

People were even more polarized over science than sports teams. At the outset, Evans said, “I was hoping to find that science was like a Switzerland. When we have problems, we can appeal to science as a neutral arbiter to produce a solution, or pathway to a solution. That wasn’t the case at all.”

Evans started his study on Amazon. You know the heading that says, “Customers who bought this item also bought”? Evans and his colleagues analyzed the top 100 items in this list for two “seed” books: Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father and Mitt Romney’s No Apology. They repeated this process for each book in the top-100 list until they ran out of new titles.

“The resulting ‘snowball sample,’ ” Evans and company wrote in their 2017 Nature Human Behaviour paper, “contained virtually all books in the largest strongly connected component in Amazon’s directed co-purchase network,” or 1,303,504 unique titles.

After performing a co-purchase network analysis—the sort used to study co-citation and co-author networks—on this dataset, the scholars concluded that political ideology guided people to science books. With some curious results. Liberal readers preferred basic science (physics, astronomy, zoology), while conservatives went for applied and commercial science (criminology, medicine, geophysics).

“It seems like conservatives are happy to draw on science associated with economic growth—that’s what they want from science,” Evans said. “Science is more like Star Trek for liberals: traveling through worlds, searching for new meanings, searching for yourself.” Science turned out to be “a huge example of confirmation bias,” Evans said. “You expect something to be true, you want it to be true, you read books that affirm and confirm those truths.”

The thing most disturbing to me is the onslaught of claims about fake information and fake news.

Looking at the polarized results, Evans had an idea. What would happen if you put together a group of diverse people to produce information? What would the results look like? Evans knew just the place to conduct the experiment: Wikipedia. Evans and Misha Teplitskiy, a postdoctoral fellow at the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard, and colleagues, studied 205,000 Wikipedia topics and their associated “talk pages,” where anybody can observe the debates and conversations that go on behind the scenes.

The scholars judged the quality of the articles on Wikipedia’s own assessments. “It’s based on internal quality criteria that is essentially: What do we want a good encyclopedia article to be? We want it to be readable, comprehensive, pitched at the right level, well-sourced, linked to other stuff,” Teplitskiy explained.

In their Nature Human Behaviour paper, “The Wisdom of Polarized Crowds,” Evans and Teplitskiy concluded that polarization doesn’t poison the wells of information. On the contrary, they showed politically diverse editor teams on Wikipedia put out better entries—articles with higher accuracy or completeness—than uniformly liberal or conservative or moderate teams. It’s a surprising result and so I caught up with Evans and Teplitskiy to offer their interpretations.

What does Wikipedia tell us about diversity?

James Evans: People talk about the importance of diversity. It’s not diversity in general; it’s diversity in specific. If you have these different ideologies, it’s associated with different filters on the world, different intakes of information, and so when it comes to constructing reference knowledge on an encyclopedic web page that’s supposed to thoroughly characterize an area, you do a much better job because you have a lot more information that’s attended to by this ideologically diverse group.

Editors working on a social issues page said, “We have to admit that the position that was echoed at the end of the argument was much stronger and balanced.” Did they begrudgingly come to that? They did, and that’s the key. If they too easily updated their opinion, then they wouldn’t have been motivated to find counter-factual and counter-data arguments that fuel that conversation.

We found that more diversity is associated with longer conversations. If they were immediately willing to give up on these things, then it wouldn’t have produced the sustained competition that ended up generating the balance that they, themselves, came to appreciate.

Which pages on Wikipedia benefit most from political diversity?

Evans: Political pages. The second most are social issues pages, which have a substantial political content. Even science pages benefit because sciences resonate with different political ideologies. And there’s no question that the science articles that benefited the most were the science articles that are associated with political polarization.

I would be surprised if we didn’t see that across the science pages associated with the environment, which include climate change, but likely a lot of other things, including biodiversity. Those are kinds of science articles that benefited the most from political polarization because they’re the ones, unsurprisingly, for which diverse political perspectives end up offering really different filtered information.

Misha Teplitskiy: Psychologists and organizational scholars call this “task relevance.” It’s the idea that diversity in ideas should help only for tasks for which diversity is relevant. You expect ideological diversity to be most relevant for politics, less so for social issues, and less so for science. The surprising feature there is that it’s at all relevant to science, but generally we expect it to matter less and less the farther you get away from task relevance.

The evidence for our contribution to climate change is unimpeachable. So might a Wikipedia entry that encouraged diverse opinions not produce a high quality result? Would that run counter to your study, to the importance of diversity?

Evans: You’re saying there are some things where diversity can just generate noise. In general, one could imagine this, and there’s a wonderful book called Merchants of Doubt which explores precisely this issue, that companies in a number of areas increased the amount of apparent diversity in a decreasingly diverse consensus about, for example, smoking’s influence on lung cancer.

That’s certainly taking place in the world. But for some reason, and this is a tribute to some of the standards in the context of Wikipedia, people discipline each other and are effectively disciplined by higher-level editors. There’s also a whole host of different perspectives that people might take with respect to global warming.

Even though there might be general agreement that human activity is increasing greenhouse gases and higher temperatures, it could be one assumption has you thinking there are human solutions to human problems, and another one has you thinking of the importance of human stewardship over the earth. So different perspectives aren’t just generating artificial conflict in these contexts.

At the same time, our experience is for broad topics. There are few places where there’s enormous amounts of certainty in the sciences. My guess is in places where there is strong certainty, we’re not going to see a big effect from political diversity. Political diversity is not a magical substance. If the distribution of political perspectives aren’t correlated with useful information about the topic at hand, then you’re not going to see a benefit. You’re going to see noise. You might even see a detriment.

What do you think about fake news?

Evans: The thing most disturbing to me is the onslaught of claims about fake information and fake news. In some sense, all information is fake. All of it has a purpose, an angle. But the fact that now it’s just so easy to claim that it’s fake without any particular support for that claim, and it’s popular to do so, means it’s easier to discount alternative information than ever before.

Angles are useful. They motivate people to look in a certain place, to search out information that you probably wouldn’t have searched out if you weren’t motivated by the possession of a belief. Angles end up having a lot of value, unless you discount them all. It begins with Trump arguing that everything’s fake news and then people arguing that Trump’s producing fake news all the time.

There’s this cloud of fakery out there, and, of course, it’s exacerbated by the proliferation of bots and other things generating noise. I see that in mass media news in the same way I see it online. It’s a new level. It’s like we’ve just discovered that there’s bias in the system and so everything is biased, categorically, and we can agree or disagree with it at will.

I hope that we can begin to persuade people to really value the importance of bias, that bias is critical to how we view things, that there isn’t an unbiased position.

Why are the highest quality articles overseen or written by an ideologically diverse group of people?

Evans: More collective insight is generated when you draw people who have non-random and minimally overlapping sets of information or knowledge exposures and you put them in a forum that’s well-regulated by a set of norms, which can be appealed to and are, in fact, appealed to. I was really struck by the fact that people often experience this. When they experience balanced debates on these sites, they really described the process as painful and beleaguered but the outcome as satisfying.

Teplitskiy: Ideologically diverse teams end up debating more. These people are carrying different bits of knowledge. When they bring it together, they’re spending more effort to aggregate it into good content. Even aside from increased effort, we’re also finding that the kinds of debates they have are a bit more focused. They zero in on a smaller set of issues and really hash out those issues that are presumably most problematic.

They end up having more conflict and rely on policies more for regulating what we call their “task conflict,” or conflict that’s oriented around creating content, and they also have a lower relational conflict—they gang up on each other less and harass each other less on a personal level compared to more unbalanced teams. Those that are more balanced have a lower harassment prevalence.

What happens when editor teams are politically unbalanced, or overwhelmingly left- or right-wing?

Evans: When you have a single person going in and describing a set of pages as, “They look like Russian propaganda,” those people don’t recognize that they are entering a system of 30 or 40 people who have constructed this page in conversation, and they are coming in and really just trashing that characterization.

Almost invariably, they just got beaten up, labeled as trolls, sent out of the community on a rod with tar and feathers. The homogenous group has a sense of, “We’ve built the social contract and then this person is coming in from the outside.” We found empirically, in our study, that there was a lot more toxic language when you have these imbalances.

Teplitskiy: Our data is suggestive. You would prefer diverse teams that are in a moderate position. Shifting in either direction away from the middle or the moderate position as a team is negatively associated with quality.

Are there some key lessons that groups that produce or evaluate ideas can take from your Wikipedia study?

Teplitskiy: One lesson that our work raises is around branding or creating a culture and letting people know about it, and letting it be the mechanics of how you organize a platform. One interesting thing about Wikipedia is it’s got a very strong culture. If you want to play in the sandbox, you should be ready to back up your claims, cite your sources, cite sources that are reasonable, listen to others.

That clearly discourages some people from joining, people who are not willing to play by reasonable rules. They do more filtering up front on who can play, not in a heavy handed way, but more by signaling their culture strongly, and people who don’t like it don’t stick around.

Compared to the science-book study, the Wikipedia paper sure seems to hold out hope for consensus.

Evans: Yes, and I hope that we can begin to persuade people, with this kind of paper, to really value the importance of bias, that bias is critical to how we view things, that there isn’t an unbiased position. Only when we begin to demonstrate the value of bias can we battle the cloud that bias is bad. Everything’s biased, so we have to reach into our core values and use those to guide our way through this world. There’s a strong scientific value behind bias, so our hope is to begin a conversation about the value of polarized crowds.

What can scientists learn from your results?

Evans: My hope is that not just scientists, but people with opinions and political stakes in general, can seriously consider the fact that people who don’t share their political viewpoints have something valuable to say—and even if they don’t have something valuable to say about a particular political topic, that their different experience and perspective has likely given them access to other kinds of information that will be valuable and new to you.

That’s the key to unlocking the potential of polarization: to allow people to constructively contribute to knowledge projects and other projects together. If you know enough about Wikipedia to open up the talk page, which anybody can do but almost nobody does, you’ll see extensive discussions going on. You’ll see people carefully, painstakingly employing diverse perspectives that are perceived by experts as being systematically better. It just produces more robust knowledge because there’s less ideological filtering going on.

By: Brian Gallagher

Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @BSGallagher.

Source: Wikipedia and the Wisdom of Polarized Crowds

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The Problem of Marital Loneliness

My husband is really into geometry, and once he’s mastered a complicated proof he likes to go through it with me in exacting detail. If he sees my eyes wandering, he commands me to pay attention. In general, the kinds of conversations he enjoys are the ones in which he expounds his latest cognitive treasure, be it scientific, historical, or some fine point about how to interpret an obscure ancient text.

I, on the other hand, gravitate toward paradoxes, and enjoy conversations in which I am the one who sets the terms of the problem and I am the one who gets to push all the simplest answers aside. Recently, I tried to spark a debate: Why isn’t it permissible to walk up to strangers and ask them philosophical questions? As I probed for the deeper meaning behind this prohibition, my husband was frustrated by my ignoring the obvious: “Literally no one but you wants to do that!”

Occasionally, the point he wants to explicate magically lines up with the one I want resolved, but much of the time there is a decidedly unmagical lack of complementarity between his love of clarity and my love of confusion. Of course, we compromise: by taking turns, and by putting up with the fact that one of us is, to some degree, dragging the other along for the ride. But we can also tell that we are compromising, and that makes each of us feel sad, and somewhat alone.

Conversation is only one example of the various arenas in which we routinely fail to connect; broadly, he’s considerate and unromantic, whereas I’m romantic and inconsiderate. Marriage is hard, even when no crises loom, and even when things basically work. What makes it hard are not only the various problems that arise but the lingering absence that is felt most strongly when they don’t. The very closeness of marriage makes every bit of distance palpable. Something is wrong, all the time.

Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage,” from 1973, is the greatest artistic exploration of the vicissitudes of marital loneliness. It consists of six roughly hour-long episodes, in which a married couple—Johan and Marianne—try and mostly fail to connect to each other. Marianne is a lawyer, and early in the series we see her counselling an older woman who is seeking a divorce after more than twenty years of marriage.

The client admits that her husband is a good man and a good father: “We’ve never quarrelled.” Neither has been unfaithful toward the other. “Won’t you be lonely?” Marianne asks. “I guess,” the woman answers. “But it’s even lonelier living in a loveless marriage.” The client goes on to describe the strange sensory effects of her loneliness. “I have a mental picture of myself that doesn’t correspond to reality,” she says.

“My senses—sight, hearing, touch—are starting to fail me. This table, for instance: I can see it and touch it, but the sensation is deadened and dry. . . . It’s the same with everything. Music, scents, faces, voices—everything seems puny, gray, and undignified.” Marianne listens in horror: the woman represents the ghost of her own future.

It is a profound insight on Bergman’s part to notice that loneliness involves a detachment not only from other people but from reality in general. As a child, I had trouble forming friendships, and turned instead to fantasy. I could imagine myself into the books I read and, by embellishing the characters, supply myself with precisely the sorts of friends that I’d always longed for.

If you have engaged in this kind of fantasizing, you know that the thrill of creativity eventually collapses into a feeling of emptiness. This is the moment when loneliness hits. You’ve prepared yourself an elaborate psychological meal, and you realize, belatedly, that it can never sate your real hunger.

One is often loneliest in the presence of others because their indifference throws the futility of one’s efforts at self-sustenance into relief. (If you spend a party reading in a corner, you come to see, no matter how good the book, that you are not fooling anyone.) In a marriage, this loneliness manifests in the various ways that couples give each other space, demarcating spheres in which each person is allowed to operate independently.

If I allow my husband to hold forth and he allows me to go paradox-mongering—if we humor each other—the very frictionlessness of the ensuing thoughts infuses them with unreality. “My husband and I cancel each other out,” Marianne’s client says. She means, I think, that we sap the reality from one another’s lives by way of our lack of interest, our noninvolvement, our failure to provide the constraining traction that is needed for even the most basic sensory experiences to feel real.

Source: The Problem of Marital Loneliness | The New Yorker

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