The Common Malady: In human interaction, and this may be a character trait unique to our species, there is a tendency to perceive the behaviors and verbalization of others in personal terms, understood as reflecting an attitude, belief or feeling that is about “me”, because of me, or in relationship to me. This tendency of the mind to impose personal meaning to another’s behavior is called personalization or personalizing, a method of understanding another through a one-sided view finder: much of what you say or do with me, near me, or to me, is reflective of what you think of me, what I mean to you or what I believe to be your true motivation regarding me. The individual is convinced that they know the “intent” of someone’s behavior. Another term for this type of cognitive process is attribution, also known as the Fundamental Attribution Error. Both personalization, attribution and a whole host of other cognitive distortions in our daily thinking are the Achilles Heel of many a Coupledom’s relationship.
The Soap-Soaked Sponge, The Toilet Seat Up, How Fast You Walk, How Slow You Talk, Your Brow Frown, Your Lateness, Your Sadness, Your Everything All Has To Do With Me: The mind can play a lot of tricks in the service of our self-esteem, our cultural biases, and our interpersonal and familial histories. In other words, the mind can act as a rubber stamp in our efforts to interpret the outside world. “You are right,” says the mind, “everyone who doesn’t think as you do about this is wrong.” You are right,” says the mind, “anyone who doesn’t like movies that you like is stupid.” “You are right,” says the mind, “there are good people and there are bad people. And we know how to judge that.” “You are right,” says the mind, “no one will ever love you, so don’t be a fool and think that they do.” “You are right,” says the mind, “you can read his or her mind, no matter what BS they tell you that contradicts your view. You know better.” Intimate relationships with shared living allow for an orgy of cognitively distorted interchanges, each partner relying on their interpretations of the behaviors, verbalization, facial and body language of the other partner. “I know why you left that sponge full of soap at the bottom of the shower. You don’t care about me. You don’t listen. You are a slob. I know why you never put the seat down, you are selfish and don’t give a damn about my bottom hitting the cold hard surface of the bowl in the middle of the night. I know why you forgot to call me, what that frown on your face is all about, and why you are late for dinner. I know and I don’t care what you say is the reason. This is all about me, your lack of respect for me, your disregard for me, your selfishness.”
Black, White and Oops, The Whole Rainbow: There are many mind games that we rely on to get through the day. Polarized thinking is a big one, thinking in black and white, a fallacious format that our psyche finds useful. After all, black and white to the exclusion of the rest of the rainbow keeps us from having to dabble in ambiguity, ambivalence or another of those more subtle forms of analytic thinking that might steer us away from a victim/victimizer mentality into responsibility, a tinge of guilt or some other order of complexity and imperfection that reframes a transaction.
Limit The Input: Unfortunately many a psyche is trained to limit input that might, oh dear, steer the party involved toward a feared conclusion, that in fact, I am the “ bad one.” This is primitive thinking, a relic from early childhood that hitches a ride onto our developing maturity without actually developing, sort of a vintage sidecar on an up-to-date automobile. The brain of a two-year old, a four-year old or six-year old is not yet equipped with the more sophisticated dashboard accessories that allow for abstract thinking: yellow, red or green buttons, shades and hues, preferences not absolutes. Why do we cling to these simplistic formats way beyond their developmental appropriateness? Or why do we resurrect them when we are in a Coupledom? Regression. What is it about the pull of dependency or interdependency that plunges us back to primitive thinking? Threat! Our psyche is threatened and so we regress.
Liars Everyone! Really? In my practice I see decent folk look into each other’s eyes and say, “You never said that.” “You did not do that.” “You’re making that up now to cover your tracks.” Absolute statements with broad strokes of generalization are thrown in to add punch and prevent a counter response, a clever tactic indeed. Never, Ever and Always, hallmarks of a cognitive distortion called “generalization” – where the individual on the assault loads the rifle with the paralyzing powder of absolutist phrasing – a mainstay of Coupledom battle strategies. So what does this mean? Are you saying that your partner lies? Not exactly. Then I don’t understand. Someone is hard of hearing? No. Someone wasn’t in the room? No.
Back To Regression: So what are these shenanigans all about? They are born out of a young mind’s subconscious and unconscious defensive system and serve to protect self-image, the child’s developing sense of self-worth, from feeling inferior, inadequate, imperfect, bad, an unlovable no-good kid. The youngster’s conceptual competence limits them to a concrete, simplistic understanding of the interpersonal world, though much more is absorbed than what is understood at the time. Consequently, the defenses employed match the cognitive abilities of the young mind, black and white thinking, magical thinking, an understanding of the world with the self at the center, a limited grasp of the emotional reality of others. Think of your children! This self as the exclusive station central for interpreting the world around us won’t work in adulthood. We need more reach and flexibility of mind.
The Onion: The intimacy and daily proximity of the shared life has the same peeling away of the skin effect as the onion you use for cooking. With each new layer of its skin peeled off, the powerful odor of onion and its correspondent sting is released and we all know what that leads to: exposure and tears, the naked truth. Ah now he/she might see through to what, subconsciously or unconsciously, I am afraid that I really am: not good enough, defective, dispensable. This is a threat to us or, in psychological terms, a narcissistic threat to our sense of self, a sense we try to keep within a certain range of acceptable. The emotional investment that is a natural outgrowth of love, attraction, lust and commitment raises the stakes on what a rejection could mean thereby putting pressure on the psyche. And the vicissitudes of a shared life tend to erode some of the pillars of the earlier reassurances that helped to form and maintain a healthy enough sense of self with the other, someone who has become very powerful because our psyche perceives them as holding our worth as human beings in the palm of their hands. Feeling dependent and even helpless (as children are and do) we regress to that primitive part of our brain which thinks in black and white, good and bad, personalizes, projects, attributes and basically devolves into a less rational and less emotionally sensible individual.
Becoming Experts on Us: To recognize those cognitive distortions in ourselves takes some work. Here are links to two articles that define and describe them with clarity and applicability to our Coupledoms:
Share this with your spouse and use the information to question the commonly held notions that: “I believe I know everything about myself (maybe.) I believe I know much of what you are thinking or feeling (unlikely) and I believe that I have the inside track on everything about us (impossible).” Instead try: I don’t know what you are thinking or believing. Perhaps I should ask you and trust that you are the expert on you and will answer me. Am I the expert on you and me? Nope. Only together can we be the experts on us.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012