H. Laurence Schwab, M.F.T.

Navigating Your Relationship

Our Rush to Distortion

In my writings, clinical practice, and musings, I have a tendency to simplify very complicated emotional and psychological processes in a way that I hope is helpful. One of my favorite ways to do that is to take the four dimensions of “feeling small AND looking big” and pondering what order they actually happen in. Is it our own feeling small that tips us off? Is it our awareness that we look big or that our partner feels small? Or, is it the other person looking big that triggers our own complicated emotional and mental process? I suspect it is the last option, that it is our perception of someone else’s behavior that sets the stage for our emotional response, our behavior, and the other person’s perception of our behavior.

When someone important to us does something, or says something, or doesn’t say something, or doesn’t do something, we are in a hurry to make coherent sense of what just happened. We quite apparently employ a rich mixture of an entire lifetime of memory, the other person’s past behaviors, our own associations with the current behavior, and whatever perceptions we believe in or are testing out, to define what we have just experienced. What eventually gets us in trouble is a) this is our own history at work, not there’s and b) we are in a hurry because of our own insecurities and need for control. Better to have a clear sense of what just happened than a really perceptive one. In this momentary rush to distortion, we are not likely to consider the intentions or feelings of the other person, or the complicated context for the behavior we are striving to define. Our emotional need for perspective and order outweigh our ability to see the whole picture.

One of the devices I use to illustrate this is a kaleidoscope with two ends called a “Wedding Kaleidoscope®.” I ask couples to consider an issue that causes tension, typically money, sex, in-laws, kids, jobs, or the house, and look into the kaleidoscope. They can not both see the issue the same way, and that is the purpose of the kaleidoscope, to remind them that they each have a unique perspective on what they are disagreeing about. In fact, neither of them has a clear view of the beautiful pebbles in the middle of the device. They each see their own fascinating distortion of the pebbles. The problem is not only that they can’t see the issue the same way, but that they are both in a rush to distort what they are actually looking at.

It takes a lot of work to slow down this process. It happens in an instant. We all have memories, expectations, opinions, beliefs, familiar perceptions, and strong associations from our own lives to apply to this immediate need to understand a situation. Slowing that process down makes us vulnerable, or at least that is what our insecurities tell us. It takes courage to consider the context for the behavior and the actual intentions of the other person. Nonetheless, this is a legitimate goal for our relational health.

If, or when, we can be less surprised and more aware of the complexity surrounding a behavior that alarms us, we have a better chance of eventually responding in a more constructive and able fashion. That response of ours is likely to be less irritating, scary, threatening, or surprising to the other person as they rush to their distortion of our behavior. By being more prepared and risking more awareness when events happen, we can contribute to a calmer outcome and thus a deeper safer connection with our partner.

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