Last week I wrote about the importance of knowing our roles in a relationship – a pretty smart post if you ask me (I’m okay with being biased). Another very important concept that needs to be remembered is perspective. How we experience something is affected by how we interpret it. For instance, when I have couples come into my therapy office after a fight and I ask who started it, the first person will say, “They did,” and the partner will say, “No, they did.” Does that sound like little kids? You know it. It’s amazing how similar people are no matter their ages. Adults just have better filters and vocabularies to help not appear as childlike… sometimes. How can two experienced, often very educated people have very opposite opinions of who started the fight? It’s perspective. That’s why as a listener you always want to be careful not to jump on the one person’s bandwagon and assume the partner is evil, which is always tempting when you hear one person’s story. If I ask why the first person thinks the other started it, they’ll say something like “They yelled at me,” and then the partner will likely say one of the following: “They weren’t listening, so I had to get louder to get their attention,” “They treat me like I’m an idiot,” or they’ll simply say, “No, they yelled at me first.” In normal fights, both sides have a perspective that makes the other person the one who started it because we want to feel like the innocent one while the other side are the bad ones. It’s like in World War 1 and 2, both sides had marketing to make the other sound evil, so you felt better shooting at them. In relationships, we have to justify our being angry at them, so we have to believe they’re “bad” in some way.
I learned the importance of perspective years ago as a youth pastor when I had a young person I really liked tell me how mean their parents were and then later, when I met the parents, they were nice and very supportive of their child. The reality was, like in many cases, both sides were good people with bad moments and lots of misinterpretations fueled by different perspectives. There have been a few times as a therapist where the one person made the other sound mean and when I met them they were, but that’s pretty rare except in cases where there are things like psychopathic or bi-poloar tendencies or potential autism issues that reduce compassion abilities, or the partner is just so full of resentment it oozes out of them through meanness.
I should point out that when I listen to someone tell me their side of a story, especially when it’s just them, there are two types of people:
- This is how the other person is hurting me and it’s all their fault; I’m innocent.
- This is how the other person is hurting me, a) but this is what I’ve done…. b) but I’m sure they would say I’m doing something that’s adding to the problem c) but I’m not perfect either.
Notice the difference? The second person is aware it takes two people to have a conflict while the first person wants to play the innocent victim, which usually indicates they have some passive aggressive tendencies and think they’re somehow superior than the other person (e.g. they could think they’re a better worker or superior morally, spiritually, physically, etc). Meanwhile, when someone includes the idea that they’re not perfect, my first thought is this person likely has pushover tendencies and receives things like eye rolls, sighs, jabs, and other contemptuous reactions from their partner. This isn’t to say the eye roller is a bad person; after all, the odds are they work really hard and are worn out trying to better the family. People like this have a hard time not forming a little resentment because they work so hard and it feels like they carry the relationship in some way. There are always two sides, and if we’re in a conflict, we’re doing something to add to it. No one is innocent, which is a statement that makes people like eye rollers angry at me.
In most relationships I see as a therapist, there is one of each of the above categories of people (i.e. the shares the blame and the blames the other). In a couple situations, I had both people in the relationship be the second category, but that’s very rare for them to go to therapy. Instead, they usually have an amicable breakup as both sides just want to avoid conflict or one of them cheats as a way to end the relationship. I’ve also had a few couples who were both in the first category. Guess how those sessions went. Those are the couples that get super mean to each other. I once had a guy, in front of me, scream at his partner and end his rant by calling her the c word and I don’t mean “Chad” (calling someone that is a high compliment because Chads are awesome… again, I’m biased). Meanwhile, all session his partner had the most contemptuous and resentment fueled responses I’d ever seen and both thought they were the innocent victim when they were both equally nuclear bombing the relationship – his actions fueled her responses and her actions fueled his responses. Couples like this are doomed unless a miracle can soften both of them. Ultimately, couples only turn the relationship around and thrive if they both take responsibility and accept that neither person is “better” than the other. Contempt (thinking you’re superior) is the most damaging mentality in a relationship and only by opening both people’s eyes to this can the relationship be made healthy again.
Bonus: Perspective is particularly important when interpreting the world. For instance, I was sad to hear Aunt Jemima is going to be completely changed because of how it has roots connected to racism. For me, Aunt Jemima is… wonderful. The title “Aunt” made her feel like family (gold star to the marketers for being able to do that). She was a sign for excitement and anticipation. When I saw her at the table, I knew it was going to be a great meal. Who doesn’t love pancakes or waffles… minus overly healthy people who are weird to me. (People who would rather show their ribs than eat ribs don’t make sense to me.) Aunt Jemima represented liquid sugar. How much better a role can you have? You’re like the Santa of the dinner table: “Aunt Jemima is here? Sweet!” Who doesn’t love syrup? Besides diabetics… or the people who make natural syrup because the process is intense. If anything, I always felt sorry for Mr. Clean; he was an old, bald guy who represented chores… gross. In 1989, the makers of Aunt Jemima changed her design to make her more “appropriate,” but she was always the kind, smiling woman I wanted to see at my table. In a way, she helped me love black people. She was like “The Cosby Show” “Fresh Prince,” and “Family Matters.” They all made me want black friends because they seemed so friendly and cool, and as a country kid who didn’t really see black people until high school, it helped keep me from being completely sheltered in a white bubble. Instead, I was only partially sheltered with a very equal and positive view of black people. I’m sorry Aunt Jemima has hurt people, but at the same time, I will always hold a special part in my heart for her. As in all opinions, however, perspective makes a big difference.
Ultimately, when it comes to perspective, we need to be careful not to assume the worst of people; we need to be looking for ways to see the good in others and be ready to see how our actions might be interpreted as hurtful. When there is a fight, it always takes two parties, which means both sides are contributing in some way and both need to adjust to make it better. In addition, we may have different perspectives, but that doesn’t give us a reason to be mean or assume others are being mean. That kind of thinking just makes life feel worse.
This week may you consider how your perspective affects you.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, Learning to love dumb people (like me)