Thursday, May 15, 2008

Where things stand

James Hillman's essay has shaken loose a number of insights, mainly on the theme of differentiation.

I've realized this for a long time, but I get it more deeply now that the seat of the fissure between Gary and me is the fact of conflict.

After years of a similar pattern to our struggles I realized that part of what really twisted inside me about them was that they often rose when he held me responsible for something that I could not have known, unless my brain had been sitting behind his eyes. More and more it became clear that in his dealings with me he was fully expecting that my perspective was indistinguishable from his. A minor manifestation of this might be the two of us trying to maneuver a long table through a doorway:

Gary: "Move the end to the the RIGHT! ...the right!!!!" Me, having moved the 'end' to the 'right', totally puzzled and stung by his tone. Then it turns out he means his right, and by 'end' he means the upper end, and by 'move', he means tip. I've pointed out to him before that because he can see something from his vantage, it looks different from mine, and more precise language rather than increased volume might get better results. I can tell by the acoustics that he doesn't 'get' this, that he really feels I had all the information I needed and if I didn't it was on account of stupidity (mine).

I see now that this is just one mundane example of a common thread that is pervasive in our marriage--he really believes that what he sees is what I see too. And when I differ to him it feels like a betrayal--as if I realized my eye had been 'telling' me the tree was green, but it really is red.

The fact of any conflict at all between us, and in this sense I define 'conflict' as a divergence in how we perceive a shared event, is offensive to him. Because if I were indistinguishable from him, then there would be no conflict.

So this is why we haven't been able to get a handle on even the basics of conflict management: we're not supposed to have conflict in the first place. Therefore attempts to resolve conflict, beginning with acknowledging the presence of conflict has already offended him and he is coming from a place of resentment--which creates more conflict.

This explains the curious spiral nature of the issues between us, where conflict A happens, I name it, he a) dismisses b) diminishes c) criticizes my response, and then conflict A is still unresolved and now there's conflict A1 to deal with too. Eventually we may come to a sort of resolution, but the cost has been that he harbors resentment toward me and feels I've brow-beaten him into 'admitting' he's 'wrong'.

I've not correctly apprehended the nature of this very basic problem. I have assumed that he is a rational person and tried to point out to him that essentially he's expecting me to read his mind and this isn't a reasonable expectation. I've been baffled by the fact that he doesn't seem to see this, and the basic problem recurs in a different form, at all levels of our relationship. I've wondered if it is me who is expecting too much, if I've made an error in my reasoning somewhere, or if I'm 'too sensitive' and therefore susceptible to his tone--in other words I've wondered if I'm at fault.

To consider that this is an issue of differentiation makes a lot of things clear.

What I understand about Theory of Mind comes to mind here. I hope I don't offend in mentioning it, because I know that many parents of autistic children dislike it intensely. But I think it applies in this case to a person with a typical neurology--it certainly explains what I've been experiencing. To illustrate Theory of Mind a child is shown a film of Millie who has taken a bar of chocolate out of a drawer, eats some, puts it back in the drawer, and leaves the room. A few moments later in the film Millie's mom removes the same chocolate, uses it in cooking, and puts it away in a different drawer. The child watching the film is asked which drawer Millie will look in to find the chocolate when she comes back. An immature child will think that Millie will look in the drawer that he saw the mother put the chocolate in, not realizing that Millie is carrying a different construct in her head based on her experience. In essence, Gary is not distinguishing his perspective from that of Millie--he expects Millie's behavior to be based on his perspective. Furthermore, he doesn't see that he's not separating his perspective from hers.

This would account for the sense of dead space between us, where I just don't feel I've connected when I try to explain to him that I couldn't possibly have known what he meant about something.

This is a big problem. It's a primary source of conflict in our relationship; it's a primary obstacle to being able to clean up after a conflict. It's a source of resentment from him toward me. It's the source of often poisoned air between us. It's like living on a fault line and at any moment a gap will open underfoot to fall into. It's difficult to anticipate the next time he will expect my perspective to be identical to his so I can compensate for it in advance. He is blind to it, so it is unrealistic to expect him to adjust his behavior.

The big question is, how is this affecting the boys? Is living in this zone ultimately more harmful to them than the trauma of a parental separation/divorce?


Lori said...

I had never heard that theory. It helps me understand, as does your example of moving the table.

You are in such a difficult situation.

Maybe we all are.

Douglas W said...

Two people looking at the same situation from different perspectives will always see it differently at that moment.

But past experience and time spent looking at things from other perspectives enables us to appreciate the other viewpoint as well, even when we are on the opposite side of what we are looking at.

When you at yourself look in the mirror do you imagine you are seeing yourself the way other people see you? No, because what you see is a mirror image. It is reversed. If you have a ribbon in your hair on the right, the person in the mirror has it on their left. Things are not always as they seem.

When you sit looking at this computer screen can you picture in your mind what the room behind you looks like without actually turning around?

Most likely you can. Because you have seen it before. And you were able to conjure up that different viewpoint from your past experience without actually moving from where you are.

The same with other people's perspectives on things. If we try to occasionally see the world through their eyes it can give us an insight into why they always say the world is black, when we always say it is white.

This applies to conflict between nations as much as to conflict between individuals. If we make some attempt to occasionally put ourselves in the other person's shoes and see life from where they see it much conflict would be avoided and understanding would take its place.

Mercurious said...

I think we probably sometimes approach life like Gary does, though it does seem he has a bad case.

It's rather intimidating to recognize that our way of seeing the world is entirely unlike anyone else's, and so maybe it's due to fear of aloneness that we insist that other people's minds operate exactly as ours.

Then again, that's what make the rare moments of genuine connection so special.

excavator said...

Thanks, Lori, Doug, and Mercurious.

Yes, the issue of perspectives can be perplexing, because it seems like a human and common thing to assume that our own viewpoint represents objective reality that all measurements are taken from. As you said, Doug, this can be disastrous when it applies to nations and peoples--as colonists assumed their innate superiority over the people in the lands they traveled to. In the United States this perspective is institutionalized into a concept called "American Exceptionalism". I guess whatever the most-powerful-nation du-jour is gets to wear those myopic glasses.

On the personal level, Mercurious, what you said seems true--that perhaps in realizing how different our perspectives are is the seed of dread about how alone we are. And perhaps that's the crux of the forces of conformism and the cruelty toward those who are different.

On the personal level of relationship it's definitely like sand in the gears, for one person to expect that the other's viewpoint be identical to one's own.

Anonymous said...

I can imagine how difficult it would be to live with a person like this. I listened, or saw, a lecture on this by a woman who was signing. She was explaining theory of mind with regards to language development and I have a daughter who is severely delayed and uses sign to communicate. I had gone to the lecture in an effort to help my daughter's language development and ultimately her mental development. My daughter and I have a sister with a brain injury, neither of them are able to understand another's perspective which makes things tough. But you already know that. Enjoying your blog.