The sun is fading on the last day of our family’s summer vacation. I am trying to internalize the mesmerizing ebb and flow of the waves, the soft breeze, the warmth of the sun on my skin, and the peaceful ease of this moment so I can store it away for later. Walking back to our chairs on the opposite side of the beach, I scrutinize the footprints we are making in the sand. Our girls are walking ahead of us, my husband identifies each of the owners of the footprints of our family members…. and then attempts to walk in them with great difficulty. One of our girls has a staggered gait – quite difficult and unnatural to walk in. Our other daughter’s footprint trail has wide gait – also not easy to follow.
The conclusion: it is never easy to walk in another’s footprints.
This is a real life example of a well-known principle. Walking in someone else’s shoes is not easy or natural. Why do I choose this topic, you may ask? Well, in every relationship it’s important to understand what it feels like to walk in your partner’s shoes.
In our twenty-five-year relationship, I must admit that there have been many times I've lost sight of my husband’s point of view. In those times, I was usually too wrapped up in my own experience to see and appreciate his. I cannot emphasize enough, however, the importance of remaining plugged into and empathetic to your partners’ perspective throughout life.
The minute we are disconnected from how it feels to be in our partner’s shoes, we lose ability to be appreciative. Appreciation for your partner is one of the top predictors of a happy relationship.
And, when it’s absent, it’s one the largest predictors of relationship issues (relationship failure, difficulties, affairs and divorce).
Why is it so important to be cognizant of what your partner is experiencing? There are a few reasons. We do not respect that which we do not acknowledge, understand or appreciate. Our partner may be experiencing difficult emotions such as sadness, depression, frustration, fear, anger, etc., and if we are not aware of how they feel, we may treat them without regard for those feelings. Taking your partner for granted is another reason that staying in touch with their experience is so vital. If you are aware of their sacrifice or pain and their fortitude to move forward, still loving and supporting the family, there is an added admiration and respect for them. A partner that is willing to sacrifice for his partner or family deserves recognition and appreciation. We respect one another far more when we see one another’s plight.
Real life example: I had lost my father tragically, and was worn down physically and emotionally and filled with grief while raising our two young girls. My husband was newly saddled with the additional responsibility of my father’s company as well as his own company while I took on the main weight of taking care of our young family in his absence. We were both stressed and existing in isolation of the other’s experience. I recognize now, in hindsight, that we failed to see one another’s vantage points at this time and lost appreciation and empathy for one another. I see now that this was due to our inability to step out of our own circumstances and being overwhelmed. If we had taken the time to walk in each other’s footprints, we could have nurtured one another in a way that would have allowed us to gain strength from one another. Instead, we suffered in isolation and were in danger of taking one another for granted.
In life, we often do not get do-overs… but we can learn and do things differently. Now I imagine myself in my husband’s shoes — every single chance I get. I realize how he might feel in any given circumstance, and I also ask him how he is feeling and give him my unconditional support. Honestly, it has made all the difference. I know for a fact that life will have more hardships to present…. it is inevitable. I do know that I will try to walk in his footprints no matter how odd, difficult or unnatural…. and step into his experience as best as I can. In my years as a counselor, I quickly realized the most important thing I was doing for my clients was simply to bear witness to their pain. It is, in fact, the most healing thing you can do for another person — to bear witness to their suffering … and that in itself lessens their suffering, for they are no longer alone in their pain.
So as the sun sets on this beautiful vacation as we walk down the beach, I am thankful for the people in my family who walk with me in life. I’m thankful when they walk in front of me to lead me, and when they walk beside me when I need support. But I’m most grateful for the times when they walk inside my footprints — stepping into my world, appreciating me for who I am and what I do, what I work to overcome, and how they love me, no matter what life may serve up.