One of my dear couples clients came in today, it had been a few weeks since we met. As one of them opened up, she began to speak in binaries about what their partner was and wasn’t. I immediately knew that she was in pain. After I slowed her down and gently remarked that she was putting her partner into a box, we proceeded to explore the anguish she was carrying. It led to a beautiful yet difficult exchange as she took huge risks to learn to trust him with her emotions.
One of the telltale signs that we are protecting ourselves is when we organize others into simple categories. As we become more overwhelmed, our thinking narrows and we eventually get to ones and zeroes. “He is a narcissist” or “She never apologizes”. These ways of thinking and viewing others are defensive and unhelpful. They are good at protecting us from our pain, but inefficient when it comes to communication.
The truth is, people are complicated, and our behaviour often shifts dramatically depending on with whom we are relating. Someone might be much more flexible with their boss then they are with their spouse. Being able to hold the complexity of the other in mind is necessary to have flexible and reparative conversations. Part of the reason that couples really struggle to resolve issues is that they hurt each person feels constellates into a defensive and categorical response. All week I’ve been saying that the reason couples therapy is so helpful, is that it allows each person to go more profoundly into what they are trying to communicate which helps the other one listen; it affords the couple a chance to take turns so there isn’t a perfect storm of emotion.
It is easy to put others into simple categories, generalizing about the character of an entire country for instance is a common way that we reduce complexity. Recommitting to holding the nuances of who people are is a sign of good mental health and maturation, it is when we lose that ability to see clearly that we know we are overwhelmed and stressed. Furthermore, if someone has been betrayed early on in life, there is a high chance they will form more simplistic appraisals of others as a means of keeping themselves safe. It never hurts to question one’s assumptions, especially if you notice yourself casually making remarks about other that denies them their three-dimensionality.