This post is part of my Vital Skills series, a collection of 10 non-negotiable practices we absolutely must hone if we are to craft the loving relationships we truly desire. The word ‘vital’ has been used here intentionally for its dual significance; these skills are not only essential, they are life-giving. The time and energy invested in developing these habits is paid back immeasurably in the connection we share with our partners as a result.
In their book How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It veteran couples therapists Steven Stosny and Patricia Love introduce the idea of binocular vision. Binocular vision is the ability to hold our partners’ perspective concurrently with our own. This contrasts it with monocular vision, which is the tendency to operate entirely from our own frame of reference. According to Stosny and Love, “developing the ability to see the world through your partner’s eyes, while holding onto your own perspective, may be the single most important skill in intimate relationships.”
In nature, the key difference between monocular and binocular vision is eye placement. Predators like lions have eyes in the front of their head, allowing them to perceive depth and track the movements of prey. In contrast, herding animals like gazelle have eyes on the sides of their head. This affords them an almost 36- degree view, but since they cannot perceive depth, they are unable to trust their vision to keep them safe. As a result, these animals are more anxious and skittish, even in captivity. “In humans,” Stosny and Love observe, “monocular perspectives breed nervousness, suspicion, and eventually paranoia.”
While monocular vision is overwhelmingly negative, binocular vision allows us to integrate both positive and negative aspects of our partners. In contrast to the two-dimensional caricatures we often sketch in our minds, binocular vision promotes the uptake of new information so we can create more nuanced, complex interpretations. We move from “flat” descriptions of our partners to multidimensional ones. Monocular vision tends to give us more of the same, while binocular vision opens our world up to new possibilities.
Binocular vision is particularly important when we are facing disappointment. It’s easy enough to see our partner’s perspective when it overlaps considerably with our own, or when it differs on something apparently trivial. But to have the wherewithal to reach beyond ourselves on contentious issues? That takes a great deal of maturity. Accessing binocular vision is the only way to get out of the mental rut of seeing things our way and our way only. The ability to relinquish the idea of our view as being the one true reality is essential for us to live relationally.
In discussing the monocular allure of being “right,” Stosny notes “…when you’re angry, you’re wrong even when you’re right because you can’t see the other person’s perspective.” Family therapist Terry Real echoes this sentiment in another way: “In an intimate relationship, the answer to the question who is wrong and who is right is…who cares?” We need better ways to convey to our partners that our relationship is more important than whatever it is that we’re arguing about. The good news, Love says, is that it only takes one person to make the first move. “The partner will feel the impact, even if he or she can’t drop the anger right at that moment.”
Still, to consciously choose to see our partner’s perspective during the heat of the moment is a tall order. The biggest challenge of binocular vision is that it requires us to empathize with vulnerabilities that we do not experience to the same degree as our partner. According to Stosny and Love, men, socialized to be vulnerability-averse, have trouble tuning into a woman’s fear, while, women, socialized to be more in-tune with relationships, have trouble understanding a man’s heightened sensitivity to shame. “When a woman triggers a man’s shame, she is wrong even when she is right. And when a man triggers a woman’s fear, he is wrong even when he is right.”
Belinda Real underscores the profundity of remaining connected through conflict when she describes such efforts as acts of “relational heroism.” When a man, for example, sets aside his rage in order to relax into a protective stance and speak to his wife’s fears; when a woman resists the impulse to criticize and instead lovingly confronts her husband while safeguarding him from inadequacy; these are moments of healing that have the power to end toxic family legacies.
It is important to note that developing binocular vision doesn’t mean you have to agree with your partner’s position. It just means you have to give importance to the feelings associated with it. (Of course, we don’t always know our partner’s feelings. In these cases, we are challenged to sit in our distress until we have all the info.) A simple way to validate your partner’s feelings even when you don’t agree with their interpretation is to use something like the following statement: “If I saw it the way you did, I would feel [hurt, scared, angry, inadequate] too.” In this way, binocular vision is a gateway to more compassionate conversations.
In terms of attachment alarms, binocular vision allows us to see that what sets off our partner’s warning bells is different from what trips ours. Because these alarms are hardwired into our survival programs, it is absolutely critical that we learn to recognize and respond when our partners are in attachment distress. In my next post, I’ll speak in greater depth about seeing through the haze of attachment protests in order to address the underlying emotional needs. I refer to this skill as the ability to move from “correcting to protecting.” And it will transform the way you fight.
Until then, ditch the monocle and get you a pair of bifocals.
Yours, no matter how you look at it,