A View From the Watchroom
Barry K. Wyrick, MS, MBA
Chief Operating Officer
The “Other” in the Mirror (7/22/14)
I apologize for the long absence between my posts. The reason is actually a good one—and good news for our agency. Since I have last written to all of you, our agency has proceeded to within one piece of paper from the state of getting our Medicaid license, we have received our first state contract (which means opening and licensing two new offices within a 30 day period), and we are engaged in discussions to open our first office outside of the state of Florida. As Chief Operating Officer for the agency, implementation of all of these new projects falls to me. I just have to keep reminding myself that these are “good” problems. However, the difficulty that I am experiencing is that with all of the new responsibilities, none of my old responsibilities have gone away. So today, I am sitting in one of our new offices waiting for the cable installer to show up (the old sometime between 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.). Why do I keep getting images of Jim Carey in my head?
Today, I want to talk about relationships, and some of the things that I have learned in the last couple of weeks in leading our Anger Management groups. First, as I have written elsewhere many times, I believe that the majority of the anger that we experience in our lives occurs within our closest and most intimate relationships. I believe that this is truth for three reasons. First, we care more about our close and intimate relationships than we do about other relationships in our lives. It has often been written that the opposite of love is not hate—it is indifference. We really have to care about someone to build intense emotions, either love or hate. Our emotional investment in these relationships means that we will experience our frustrations and disappointments more acutely, and are more likely to express these as anger. Second, we simply spend more time in our close and intimate relationships than we do in any other. And by spending more time with one another, we have a greater opportunity to experience our differences. We may be slow to realize it, but no two people are going to agree about everything. And so when we spend more time together, we run into more disagreements—which may end up being expressed as anger. Finally, our expectations are higher in our close and intimate relationships. We expect more out of these people in our lives, and when we expect more, we are likely to be disappointed more often—which we may experience as anger.
Early in my career, I had the wonderful experience of spending four years in family therapy training at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic. While I was not lucky enough to be trained by the Salvador Minuchin, I was lucky enough to be trained by people who were trained by him. One of our trainings was on the topic of expectations in relationships—a lesson that I like to call “The ‘Other’ in the Mirror.” Below is how I present this information when I do this lesson in group:
I don’t believe in falling in love. I think that most of us fall in lust, and the early part of nearly all intimate relationships is characterized by intensely physical experiences with the other. This period may last a couple of weeks or a couple of years, but it will eventually end. When that intensely physical period ends, we are left looking at this person trying to decide whether we want to have an emotional relationship with them or not. And if we decide that we do want to have an emotional relationship with them, we start the process of “falling in love.” However, love is a powerful image in our lives.
All of us grow up with an image of what our love relationship will be like. That image is influenced by watching our own parents as we grow up, by our own experiences in our early relationships, and even by the images of relationships in television and movies (think “When Harry Met Sally” or “Sleepless in Seattle”). All of us have our expectations about what our loved one will be like, how he or she will treat us, and how our life together will go.
So we wake up one day, we look across the bed at the person next to us, and we decide that we do want to have an ongoing emotional relationship with this person. Unfortunately, when we were in the process of falling in lust, we were not evaluating this person according to those expectations that we have about what our loved one would be like. But as soon as we decide that we want to have an emotional relationship with that person, we place all of those expectations on him or her. So in reality, we are not in a relationship with that person at all—we are in a relationship with what our hopes and dreams about a relationship will be. We are actually in a relationship with our own image of who we want that person to be (and to extend the metaphor of the title I use, we are in a relationship with our own reflection in a mirror).
We find out fairly quickly that the person that we are with is not that image that we had about what we wanted in a relationship. It is not possible for the real person to live up to that image, because it is one that we have created in our heads. So when we discover that the real person is not who we hoped and dreamed that they would be, what do we do? Do we change our hopes and dreams? Do we accept that person for who he or she is? Never!!! Instead, we set out on a lifelong campaign to make that other person be who we hoped and dreamed that they would be. So in reality, we are still in a relationship with that other in the mirror—we are just doing our best to make the real person look as much like that mirror image as possible. And whenever the real person sticks his or her head out from behind the mirror, and we see the real person, we bop the other on the head and tell them to get back behind the mirror. And the sad reality is that the other person is doing exactly the same thing.
And so the power struggle begins. Each one of us in the relationship begins the process of trying to change the other person into who we want him or her to be. At the same time, the other is trying to change us into who he or she wants us to be. We start out trying to be nice, and maybe even subtle with our requests that the other change. When those efforts are not successful, we ramp up the power and control elements, and start using behaviors such as criticizing, complaining, nagging, threatening, and punishing (five of the seven actions that William Glasser calls the Seven Deadly Habits). And when these behaviors don’t work to change the other, we give up on the relationship, telling ourselves that the other person somehow changed, when in fact the other never changed—they just never were who we hoped and dreamed that they would be, and we were unsuccessful at making them change.
One of the definitions for anger that William Glasser gives in his book, Choice Theory, is “the emotion humans experience when they are starkly confronted by the realization that they cannot control others.” I started this post with the statement that I believe that the majority of the anger that we experience in our lives occurs within our closest and most intimate relationships. The reason that I believe as I do is that it is within these relationships that we try to make the other person become someone that they are not, and we are starkly confronted with our inability to control them. Surprisingly (said completely tongue in cheek), the other person continues to be who he or she is rather than becoming who we want him or her to be. And all efforts to make that reality be any different fail. And so we get angry at the other person simply because he or she is who he or she has always been.
When I was doing a significant amount of family and couple’s therapy, I learned that most couples did not come into counseling to learn how to make their relationship work. Instead, they came to counseling either to get me to tell them which one of them was right or to learn how to make the other one do what the first one wanted. I couldn’t tell them which one of them was right, because in most situations, both of them were right, based on their own beliefs and experiences. And I could not give them any magic to make the other do what they wanted because (and this is a hard lesson for us to learn) there is absolutely nothing that anyone can do to make someone else do anything.
One behavior that Glasser lists in his “Seven Caring Habits” is acceptance, and this behavior is essential for the success of any relationship. Acceptance means allowing another to be who they are and deciding to be in a relationship with him or her anyway. It means giving up any fantasy of making the other person change. It means giving up our expectations about what a relationship “should” be, and developing a real relationship between two people—with the understanding that we are two different people who have two different lives and who have two different sets of beliefs. It means learning to tolerate and appreciate differences.
My hope for all of you who read this is that you can find relationships in your life that are based on acceptance and not expectations. We all know how powerful the experience of being accepted just the way we are can be. If you haven’t experienced it, get a Golden Retriever puppy.