It’s the other person’s world that counts.
Luis is South American, and married to an English woman, Emma. She was considering ending the marriage. At the first session, Emma announced that much of the time, Luis did not seem to hear what she said. Immediately, Luis turned towards me, incensed: “Of course I hear what she says.” Her eyes rolled heavenward.
“How would I believe that? Whatever I say, nothing changes in you; and I may as well not bother. Is it that unreasonable to ask you to put the underwear you have just taken off into the laundry basket rather than dropping it on the floor where you stand? And, when I ask you not to keep doing it, you look at me as if I am asking you to drown our cat. I end up sounding like a nag, and I hate myself when I sound like that. And I think that you do it on purpose – because I can’t think of any other reason you keep doing it. You won’t even get it right just to make me feel happier.“
She was by now near tears – and Luis gave me a triumphant “See, this is what I have to put up with” message.
I declared that I probably understood why Emma had the view she had; but, I wasn’t quite sure why Luis held the view that he had? It didn’t take long to learn that Luis’ father had given his family two often-repeated messages about women: First of all, women were, in his view, neurotic: Second, all declarations of dissatisfaction from them were temporary glitches. Such storms would blow themselves out, he assured his son – therefore, why respond to these with anything except resignation and weariness? Of course, his father was right on one thing. The declarations of dissatisfaction did tend to pass. Unfortunately, Luis saw this one observation as proof positive that the entire message was accurate: Women were, in his mind-set, neurotic. They overreacted to such minor events – becoming unreasonable and shrill. But, he felt that his policy was vindicated: Emma was attacking him less often.
It all made perfect sense to him. However, he was mystified by the fact that he felt Emma becoming more critical in general. He pointed out that the “underwear obsession” was spreading to dishwasher loading; and to his late return home from work. In response to my question of why he thought that this was happening, he suggested that this was a clear sign that her neuroses were being exacerbated by undiagnosed post-natal depression and the on-rushing menopause!
Unfortunately, his unassailable attachment to his own view meant that the problem couldn’t be resolved. Emma then asked him what he thought the situation might just look like from her vantage point. He looked at her blankly. I should have guessed that this exercise in empathy was not going playing to his strongest suit, I tried. “Apart from depression and menopause, why do you think Emma might be upset about you dropping your underwear on the floor?“
“I think she’s just a perfectionist.“
“OK, perhaps she might be – but why might it upset you if you felt responsible for keeping the room clean… and Emma just dropped her clothes on the floor where she stood?“
“I’d be OK with that.“
I won’t present the rest of that particular dialogue – it was too painful.
At the next session (by himself – face-saving is important), I used his world and thinking and language style (I try to keep a consistent philosophy; and therefore suspended my world for his!) to point out that his position didn’t seem very rational: after all, he wasn’t getting the peace and quiet he wanted. How rational is it to keep doing the same thing time after time – even when the situation is deteriorating further?
Even starting from his picture of the world – that her frustration and resentment were irrational – doing what he was doing clearly wasn’t his best bet. To handle the situation more effectively, his best policy needed to be one of seeing it through her eyes and making sense of Emma’s position. Only then he could work out his best management strategy. But to do this meant that letting go of his version of the problem.
Reverse role-play eventually had Luis discovering for himself that Emma’s anger was entirely reasonable. She spent hours providing for the family on the caretaking and domestic fronts, and his continued carelessness indicated to her that he didn’t value her efforts, her time, or her contribution. Even simply out of self-interest (there seemed little mileage at this point in getting him to recognise that he was being inconsiderate), he would be better off changing his view of her and of the source of her performance. Once he decided that his responses were vitally important, he started making inroads into them. As he did so, the vicious cycle started falling apart.
At the same time, Emma’s learning of what it looked like from Luis’ world was also important in disrupting the vicious cycle. She recognised that he wasn’t deliberately trying to wind her up – nor discount her views.
“I realise now that it wasn’t personal. He just has this view of all women. I still need him to recognise that what he does with his underwear demeans me, but I feel less trashed by his past ‘no-effort’ – and know better how to handle what he does to increase the chances of a better response from him now. I suppose we all suffer from the assumptions we make.“
Getting those in front of me to suspend their own story of what is going on in favour of understanding matters from the other side is critical. It may not always be the first step, but I have learned that it must always be part of the process. How can you change if the only view of what is going on is your own?
Names have been changed.