Free Therapy # 77: How We Heal Our Relationships Part 2

“If I had one wish
One dream I knew would come true
I’d want to speak to all the people of the world
I’d get up there, I’d get up there on that platform
First I’d sing a song or two you know I would
Then I’ll tell you what I’d do
I’d talk to the people and I’d say
‘It’s a rough rough world, it’s a tough tough world
Well, you know
And things don’t always, things don’t always go the way we plan
But there’s one thing, one thing we all have in common
And it’s something everyone can understand
All over the world sing along

I just want you to hurt like I do
I just want you to hurt like I do
I just want you to hurt like I do
Honest I do, honest I do, honest I do’”

Randy Newman

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In my last two columns, I have attempted to explore the challenge of being a human in a world with other humans. Why do we struggle to get along? Why is conflict so common? Why did one study find that most divorces result from poor communication and the inability to resolve conflict?

Why is it so hard to get along? In my experience, the answer can be found in how our brains process information and how skilled (or unskilled) we are at “minding our minds.” Each of us is dealing with reality as we experience it within our brains. We filter reality. And in the process of filtering, we change reality so that it is different from what it really was (or is). Now we have two problems. We not only are not seeing reality as it is, we do not realize that our view of reality is distorted. We “know” our truth is true and our partner’s “truth” isn’t. Because our minds told us. Because we fail to see the flaws in our own seeing.

Let’s call it the reverse contact lens effect. I’ve been wearing corrective lenses (glasses) since I was about six years old and contact lens for 45 years. Anything more than six inches in front of me is blurry. When I pop my lenses in, suddenly things become more clear. These thin fluoro-silicone/acrylate gas permeable lenses magically filter the world for me so that I can see it clearly.

It is true our brains powerfully and accurately perceive physical reality and allow us to study, analyze, process and interpret its meaning and significance. However, none of us “sees” the same thing. Why? What is it about the unique lens each of us looks through? Why can’t we see the distortion of the window through which we view the world?

What is it about our brains that cause us to distort what we experience? Why are some of us Christian and others of us atheist, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim? Why are some of us extremely conservative and others extremely liberal? How can the same world create a Hitler and a Gandhi?

Why do some think blame, objectification, and violence is the answer to the inevitable conflict we experience while others argue that we can create a better world with understanding, empathy and non-violence? Why, despite all our differences, do we all go around thinking we are right and others are wrong? How can we all be right? And why do we get angry when we are confronted with an idea or viewpoint that is different from our own? Why is that so threatening? Why is it so important that we “win” arguments? Why do we love to prove that we are right and someone else is wrong? And why is it so hard to convince someone of our truth? Why are we so closed to changing our minds?

John Gottman, the author of Why Marriages Succeed or Fail and numerous other books on relationships, has found some clues to these mysteries. For example, when we are in conflict with our partner, many of us will take it personally that they don’t agree with us. We perceive that we are being attacked or criticized. Instead of seeing that we have different perspectives on reality and then seeking to understand our partner’s viewpoint, we will often respond with our own attack. We may express contempt for them, become defensive or go silent, withdraw entirely or stonewall. All of these behaviors are harmful to the relationship and make it more likely that our partner will choose similar destructive behaviors.

When we ask couples why their marriages are in trouble, almost all will put the blame on the other person. Their partner is too negative, critical, or demanding or they fail to listen to them and validate their thoughts, feelings and perspectives.

In The Anger Control Workbook, Matthew McKay and Peter Rogers show how our anger-triggering thoughts create and frame the reality we come to believe in as absolutely true. We first tell ourselves that the pain we are experiencing is because we have been harmed and victimized by another person. This is like kindling in a woodstove. And we add gasoline when we decide the provoking person did it on purpose. It was not accidental. They meant to hurt us. Finally, we light the match when we decide the provocateur was wrong, bad, should have behaved differently and deserves to be hurt the way we are hurting. “I just want you to hurt like I do.”

In his book, Feeling Good Together, David Burns writes, “We all provoke and maintain the exact relationship problems that we complain about. However, we don’t seem to realize that we’re doing this, so we feel like victims and tell ourselves that the problem is the other person’s fault.” Furthermore, Burns argues that most of us will deny our role in our conflicts because it is easier to avoid responsibility while enjoying the feeling we experience when we blame someone else.

Like two people adrift in the ocean at the same time, each wants the other to save them but neither can because they perceive they are helpless. One yells, “Save me!” and the other responds, “Save you? No, you save me!” We are prisoners of our perceptions and don’t have a clue.

We all want our partner to listen to us and really hear and understand our deepest concerns. We all want empathy, compassion and acceptance. We want to be valued, validated and encouraged. But what do we do when we don’t get what we need? Why is it so hard to give to another what we so desperately want to receive from them?

When our partner seems unable or unwilling to make deposits in our emotional bank account, how many of us will keep making deposits in theirs? Do we provide it for our partner or do we pull back and act from a hurt and angry place, perpetuating the conflict?

The problem in our relationship is never the relationship but how we see it. Until we see that our seeing is the problem, we will continue to look for and find justification for our limited and self-serving point-of-view. The story we tell ourselves about our relationship is more important than the relationship because it reveals why we are stuck.

Steve Hayes, the author of Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, said, “It’s pain and struggle that is normal, not happiness.” We are all suffering but we fail to see how our minds create our pain. Hayes said, “Suffering is so pervasive because our attempts to solve it actually make it persist. We are caught in a trap of our own making.”

By applying science to the problems of human behavior, we now have methods that help people overcome psychological difficulties and create healthier relationships. Through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Hayes explains, “We teach clients how to back up from thoughts and the world structured by thought and instead to focus on the process of thinking itself: how to feel feelings as feelings, fully and without needless defense, even when we don’t like them; how to show up in the present moment as a conscious human being; and how to begin to act in accord with chosen values. In short, we teach people how to be more flexible in moving toward what they really want and less automatic, programmed, and self-defeating.”

Are we willing to be wrong? Are we willing to be uncomfortable? Are we willing to admit we are mistaken? Are we willing to be who we are, imperfect humans? Are we willing to apologize? Are we willing to stop blaming? Are we willing to honestly examine our own self-protective stories and find our distortions? Are we willing to give up arguing and instead look for the truth in our partner’s point-of-view?

Burns tells us that clinging to our truth and seeking to blame our partner are two of the most destructive approaches we can use in our relationships. What happens when we stop defending our position and instead respond with thought and feeling empathy?

How do you respond when someone with whom you are having a conflict, does not fire back? How do you feel when they say, “You are right. I am sorry.” Those six words are incredibly powerful. They are disarming. Suddenly the conflict feels different. We can breathe again.

When we show up in our relationships as a fully conscious human, we can fight for our partner as valiantly as we fight for our own truth. It starts with our own minds, our own sense of ourselves. It starts with seeing how we see. Until we see who we truly are, we will struggle to see the many faces of truth all around us. When we discover we are responsible for what we have at this moment, we can give up feeling like a victim. We can give up blame and anger as a weapon in our relationships. We can feel our pain without wanting someone else to hurt. And that is when the healing begins. That is when we know we’re free.

Douglas Craig
Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 30 years. He believes in magic and is a Dawes fan.
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7 Responses

  1. Well done. Most impressive. I always enjoy reading your work, Doug, this is an exceptionally thought-provoking post. Thank you.

  2. Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

    What Robb said, and so eloquently.  Great piece.

  3. A. Jacoby A. Jacoby says:

    The first struggle I face when reading your pieces, is the struggle to stop trying to throw this information over my shoulder to person X.Y, or Z who, heaven knows, needs this way more than I do.  It’s the struggle to realize that your information is to be used as a mirror, not a conduet!

    Thanks for your insight.

  4. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    Few things are as enjoyable as attending a Randy Newman show and listening to the audience’s nervous laughter.

    I have to admit that a part of me wants to reduce this stuff to the reciprocity of game theory pay-off matrices.  I’ll concede that merely casting blame at a partner does no good.  But if you’re in a long-term relationship and (with great mindfulness and clarity) you observe that there is a large and long-lasting imbalance in the dyad between the “giver” and the “taker” that is unsatisfying to the giver, does it really do anyone any good to not point this out?  As a sledgehammer example, say that one parter in a dyad—the giver—provides 100 one-hour massages for every feeble 15-minute, half-hearted back rub provided by the taker, and the giver finds this unsatisfying.  Should the giver find it surprising that this will go on indefinitely if the inequity isn’t even mentioned?  And should the taker be surprised if the supply of massages eventually dries up?  Maybe all is well if the massages are reciprocated in some other currency—but if it’s all give, give, give from one side and take, take, take from the other, the social dyad is likely to fail unless someone at some point insists on some kind of tit-for-tat.

    Did I mention I spent a lot of time watching monkeys groom each other as an undergrad?

  5. Avatar K. Beck says:

    This is the only thing I have learned in this whole life of mine, that I believe is the only real truth: Everyone Is Different. We all have different histories, some may be similar, but they are all different. When we start thinking someone else thinks what we think we will get in trouble. Relationships are all difficult, no matter how much you love and respect someone. Everyone is wrong a lot of the time and everyone is correct a lot of the time. If you are lucky you are with people who are willing to adjust to you, and you are willing to adjust to them. We get in trouble when we have the need to be correct ALL the time. It is complicated.

    All this therapy should happen BEFORE the wedding, seems to me.

  6. Avatar Joanne Lobeski-Snyder says:

    A person SHOULD  be able, without assigning blame,  to accept criticism about their  hair, clothes, weight, the food they prepared for dinner, the temperature of the food when it was set on the table, their choice in friends,  the behavior of their children, their intelligence and be able carefully and dispassionately consider these criticisms to determine what they can do  to improve themselves and to be the the perfect life partner for their spouse.

    Your article makes so much sense for a partnership of people not raised in a culture of male dominance and female subservience.

  7. Happy birthday, Doug. I’m glad you were born. 🙂