It's one of those things that is easy to say and hard to do but when your partner is hurt by or angry at you and every fiber in your body is screaming for you to retreat or lash out and protect yourself, that is the moment where you need to reach towards your partner's emotions. To be clear: you should never put yourself in danger of being the target of aggression. There is no excuse for physical or verbal aggression. But the unstated request by one or both partners in arguments is almost always "Soothe me by showing me that you understand my feelings of hurt that you caused." It is a paradox: "You are the problem. You are the solution." If that seems unreasonable and unfair, it absolutely is. Nevertheless, I think everyone who has been in a relationship has done it. We do it in different ways, criticizing, storming out, being sarcastic, shutting down, hauling in past wrongs, all the things we know we shouldn't do, we do them because we have trouble saying, "You hurt my feelings. You scared me. I feel vulnerable in front of you. And I need you to help me feel safe and secure."
Why don't we just offer what our partner needs? Why don't we just say, "I get it. I see how scared and sad and frustrated and angry and hurt you are by what I did?" Most people are able to do this reasonably well with a small child, to say in effect, "I see how see how frustrated and angry what I did makes you." It gets harder with other adults. For one thing, we think we are right about what we are arguing about and we confuse connecting with and acknowledging feelings with giving up what we want. There are people who feed this confusion by manipulating; demanding that we change what we do as proof that we understand how they feel. That makes it tougher to connect emotionally and still feel like you can stand your ground about what you need and want.
Second, connecting with another person's feelings is threatening to our sense of self. The more intense and sustained those feelings are, the more threatened we feel. Some of us have had bad experiences of being intruded on by others which makes it even harder to tolerate another's emotions without feeling our sense of self being swept away, annihilated in the storm of our partner's emotions.
I am finding that more often than not, couples therapy is about trying to help people connect emotionally to their partners well enough, often enough. I think for my clients at first it can feel like being told, "Just do a triple gainer followed by a reverse jackknife. Oh, and the pool is only four feet wide, so don't miss." But I do think it is a skill and a habit people can develop. The other thing is, of there is an alternative way of having a happy relationship over a long time, we don't know what it is yet.