Difficulties In Relationships

Although the word "relationship" implies the existence of two minds with separate experiences, most people seem to have difficulties in relating to others as truly separate persons. This is particularly true when we are in conflicts. We often identify too strongly with our own experience and don't recognize the other person at all, seeing him or her only as the cause of our reaction. We seem to expect that the other person's perceptions of an experience will be the same as ours rather than unique to how that individual actually experiences things. Instead of being curious and attempting to understand the other person's point of view, especially if it is different from our own, we respond primarily by defending our own position, as if the mere existence of a different point of view is automatically a threat to our own. Often we assume that this difference makes one person right and the other person wrong.

In working with couples, one of the most frequent responses I hear when there are differences in describing an event or a conversation is, "That's not what happened." The speaker presents what s/he has perceived as objective truth and views any other way of looking at the experience not only as incorrect but often as proof that the other person is confused or crazy. Because each person's viewpoint seems to be negated by the other's, a defensive stance is automatically taken by both people.

The inevitable differences between any two people's minds, particularly the mental processes that are involved with how we experience events, conversations, other people's intentions, etc., are not often assumed or acknowledged by the couple. It would seem obvious that how we mentally organize our experiences--perceiving events, associating to them, recalling past events, etc.--is different for each person, yet this obvious fact of our differences sometimes becomes some kind of obstacle to how we experience others. Difference can create a separateness that seems implicitly threatening. Each person seems to have a strong desire for sameness, for unity, with the other. Paradoxically, we require otherness to have our own experience validated.

Our resistance to perceiving others' experience as innately different from our own may be partly the result of our persistent need to have our own experience mirrored, or validated, by the other. It is sometimes difficult to be conscious of our ongoing need for mirroring, our need for recognition from others. Yet in fact, our earliest desires are often for our needs to be recognized. When we are not aware of this need for our experience to be recognized and validated by others, we sometimes make psychological demands on them in our attempts to get these needs met, often relating to them only as objects we use for this purpose. In our persistent quest to be validated, we can invalidate the other person's need.

Recent brain research is showing how human minds have an innate ability to mirror another person's experience. Our minds can actually experience the other person's physical and perhaps emotional experience directly. When our own needs for being mirrored are unmet, we are driven to override our natural ability to mirror others, and we turn to defensive strategies to overcome this frustration--again at the expense of recognizing the other.

One common defensive maneuver used unconsciously to handle the frustration of not being able to get our needs met is projection. Our anger at the other person for failing us is projected into the other person, so that we see them as treating us in negative, angry, ways. We interpret the other person's behavior as having hostile or self-involved intent. For the person on the receiving end, this projection, which has nothing to do with how he or she is thinking or feeling, is often the trigger for feeling misunderstood and unrecognized. This cycle escalates the sense of disconnection between the two people.

Often we project our angry feelings outside of us and contain them in the other person so that we can prevent some of that anger from attacking us inside ourselves. Instead, we attack the other person with our angry judgments and our fears. The outcome of this defensive strategy is alienation. On the other hand, being locked up in our own minds with persistently angry feelings that attack us through negative self-judgments and self-effacing messages is not an easy fate either. We can become isolated and sometimes masochistically bound to this angry part of ourselves. It is often a struggle to allow for good feelings about ourselves to regain supremacy, as we are no longer able to experience positive feelings towards us in the form of input from others. We get caught in a delusionary negative feedback system. We use feelings of omnipotence or grandiosity to pump up our fragile self. We cannot experience the actual sustenance that comes through connection with others.

In order to experience a connection with another person, we need to recognize our projections, contain our own need for recognition by using our own self-awareness, and communicate our needs and feelings when the other person has the ability to receive them. We also need to be able to reciprocate by receiving and validating the other person's feelings and needs. When we express our own feelings and needs and have the experience of those feelings and needs being understood by the other person, we achieve a sense of connection with that person; we are able to ask the person for what we need as well as to relate to his or her own needs. In this way, our separateness becomes a means of feeling connection.