|Publisher:||New World Library|
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About the Author
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Whose Reality Is Right?
Couples fight. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Sometimes these fights provide comic relief. At other times they threaten the very survival of the relationship.
This is a book for people who fear conflicts with loved ones, or who are tired of hurting. The ideas and skills in this book have been field-tested: my wife and I just celebrated our fifty-second wedding anniversary. And our relationship hasn't always been easy. We certainly wouldn't have made it without the ideas and practices described in this book. We've learned by doing.
It has been my privilege to teach problem-solving and communication skills to thousands of people worldwide. Many of the people I've worked with have known not only the pain of fights but also additional challenges such as cancer, AIDS, domestic violence, probation, and even prison time.
One of the most important things I've learned is that each of us has an emotional reality of our own. No one else experiences events in the same way that you do. No one else has the same experiences of gender, childhood, religion, culture, and community that have shaped you. No one else has exactly the same beliefs, values, or philosophy of life.
This individuality means that two people may have entirely different emotional reactions to the same external event. If my wife and I go to a movie, I may find it exciting, while she is bored to tears. Whether or not the movie is any good is debatable — that's not fact. But it is a fact that I was excited. It is a fact that she felt bored.
We've all observed how people may react differently to the same event. Although it appears commonplace, this observation holds the key to a fundamentally different understanding of our feelings.
Most of us think of feelings as caused by events outside ourselves. We think we feel the way we do because of what other people do, or life events outside our control. We get in fights with our partner because of the things they say or do. If they would just be different, we'd feel good. If they would just stop doing the thing that's bothering us, we'd be okay. Or if they'd just start doing this other thing, we'd be okay. But in the meantime, there are moments when we are just miserable — and we think it's because of other people. When we think in this way, we are, in effect, giving away control over our feelings. We believe that in order for us to feel happy, other people must change what they are doing.
Our feelings are always filtered through and interpreted by our attitudes, beliefs, thoughts, expectations, and past history. This process creates our emotional reality.
If someone I know walks by me and pays no attention to me, I can interpret this behavior in several different ways:
I can think he doesn't like me, or is upset with me, and is snubbing me intentionally.
I can think that he has so much going on in his mind that paying attention to me is of secondary importance.
I can think that he just didn't notice me.
Depending on my interpretation, I may feel hurt, angry, rejected, ignored, or just plain puzzled. My feeling results as much from my interpretation as from the other person's behavior.
We participate in creating our feelings by assigning meaning that we give to outside events. I'm not suggesting that we can simply sit down and decide what we're going to feel — although sometimes when we don't have all the facts or the situation is ambiguous, that's exactly what we do. Most of the time, our emotional reactions are instantaneous: someone says something, and we instantly feel upset, hurt, or rejected. We can feel those feelings in our body. But they are not caused directly by the event: they are the result of the interaction between the event and our personal emotional reality. It just happens so fast we're not aware of it.
How can we tell that this interaction is happening? We can see that other people feel differently about the same event. We may feel devastated by an event that other people think is no big deal. It is a fact that we feel devastated. It is a fact that these other people seem not to be bothered at all.
If we have a little emotional distance, it can be amusing when someone tells us that we ought to feel hurt, or rejected, or resentful about something that has happened, but we don't. They are really saying that because they would feel hurt (or rejected, or resentful) if that event happened to them, we should feel that way too.
Because their emotional reality is different, other people — including people we love, like our partners — have different emotional reactions to things than we do. We run into trouble when we expect — or even sometimes demand — that other people have the same perceptions that we do, and we are disappointed in them if they don't.
The problem comes when we blame these differences on defects in their personality, moral sense, or compassion. In fact, in close relationships we often express this view by saying, "If you loved me, you would feel differently." We are essentially saying, "My emotional reality is the correct one. If you loved me, you would share my emotional reality."
The realization that the person we love doesn't share our emotional reality can be a source of great anxiety and alienation. We may ask ourselves, "What is this person doing in my life? We live in totally different worlds. We interpret everything differently. We don't like the same things. It is hard to imagine how we ever got together. Is it really possible to live with a person so unlike me, whose sense of reality doesn't even resemble my own?" We seem faced with a choice between being close to another person and standing alone with our own experience. Do we have to give up our own sense of the world, our own separate experience of reality, to be in relationship with another person?
This collision between separate realities is inevitable because it is rooted in the very nature of human perception. There comes a time, even in the most harmonious relationships, when we discover that hidden beneath those qualities that initially attracted us to the other person, there are differences that set us apart. We may have fundamentally different ideas about how to raise kids, spend money, or handle relationships with friends or relatives. We may have fundamentally different reactions to physical closeness or sexuality.
At times it may seem that we are living in two completely separate worlds, that the other person is unknown to us. We react differently to the same stimuli, situations, or experience. We interpret the same issues differently, and we have a different sense of what's right and proper. When, inevitably, this leads to conflict, we come face to face with the issue at the center of almost every human relationship: how to share our lives even though we sometimes experience separate realities.
The goal of this book is to help reduce conflicts between couples, especially conflicts based on different perceptions of reality. For example, what do you do when your partner is fearful of a possible outcome that you think is totally unlikely? How do you handle the fact that your partner is very threatened by an event that you thought was unimportant? What if the two of you have very different philosophies of child-rearing, or you just can't seem to come to agreement on how to manage money?
There are five common paths that couples tend to take following the discovery of their differences. (1) They begin a never-ending battle about who's right; both are hurt and angry and the fight continues. (2) One person gives up their own reality and does their best to adopt their partner's, often at the expense of real closeness. (3) One or both individuals decide to end the relationship, because it just seems like too much work. (4) One or both partners withdraw emotionally, minimizing all forms of communication between them, but still feel hurt or angry. (5) The couple makes a decision to discover the secrets of living happily and productively together, finding excitement and fulfillment, rather than disappointment and frustration, in their differences.
This book aims to provide you with the knowledge and practical skills to follow the fifth path. It will help you learn to see the differences in your perceptions and to use them as a way of gaining deeper understanding in order to develop relationships that are harmonious, exciting, and fulfilling.
Love alone is seldom enough to resolve differences. It is the skills we learn along the way — either through long, arduous trial and error, or more quickly and easily through books, workshops, and the help of counselors — that enable us to choose joy rather than grief.
There are many approaches to resolving conflicts based on different perceptions of reality. In this book I've tried to lay out a series of different ways to address your issues. The solution is likely to involve a combination of the approaches I present.
In part 1 I present a new way of thinking about reality, showing how we each interact differently with the outside world to create our unique emotional reality. This premise is central to the book.
At the end of part 1 I lay out eleven guidelines that I've found are essential to bridging differences. Subsequent chapters of the book elaborate upon these guidelines and provide specific skills and approaches for applying them.
The first set of guidelines, covered in part 2, addresses communication and problem-solving. Resolving a major conflict over differing realities can be challenging and may lead to hurtful arguments. The skills described in chapters 6–9 reduce the potential for conflict and can reduce the pain of any conflicts that do arise.
It's much easier to resolve conflicts if both people have learned to express feelings with minimal blame and accusation (chapter 6). You need to be able to listen with empathy to cross the divides that result from differing realities (chapter 7). When you see yourselves engaging in behaviors that make fights escalate, you can stop those behaviors (chapter 8). Collaborative problem-solving is a process for reaching agreements when there are still differences (chapter 9).
These skills can smooth the way toward resolving major differences. They may even be enough by themselves to resolve differences.
Part 3 describes paths of discovery couples can take together to find new ways of interpreting life's events and ultimately finding a shared understanding. Each path coincides with one of the fundamental guidelines. You may find yourself preferring one approach over another. That's fine. Go with what gives you energy and excitement.
Chapter 10 begins with the questions of values. The most difficult choices in life are rarely between good and bad: those decisions are usually not hard to make. The tough choices are between two things that are both good. We want security, but we also want freedom. We want creativity, but we also want discipline. These pairs of goods are often in tension with each other. Values choices entail assigning more weight or priority to one or the other.
Chapter 11 discusses a technique called reframing. Our feelings are shaped by the context or "frame" through which we perceive an experience or event. For example, behaviors that seem friendly in one context may seem overly familiar in another. Your partner may frame a situation differently than you do. Sometimes changing the frame makes it possible to find solutions that are acceptable to both people.
Chapter 12 addresses the biggest frame of all, our life stories. We've learned to view our lives within a frame that shapes our behavior: for example, we may tell ourselves, "I'm a shy person," or "I'm a survivor." Some people view their lives as failures, and everything that happens to them confirms that story. But we all have experiences that could support a very different life story. In reviewing his entire life, a man who does not feel confident in social situations can almost certainly recall instances where he handled social situations with skill and aplomb. From these he could construct a different life story.
Have you ever noticed the inner voice that comments on your actions: "Boy, was that a dumb thing to do," or "You handled that pretty well"? This inner voice is called self-talk, and it can either support our efforts or tear us down. In chapter 13 I discuss how we can learn to pay attention to our self-talk and edit it to support our efforts to change.
We think of ourselves as having a single personality. But psychologists tell us that our personalities consist of many subpersonalities. What if the basis for a conflict with your partner is a result of one aspect of your personality tangling with an aspect of your partner's personality, while other aspects of your personalities aren't even disagreeing? Sound wild? Check out chapter 14 to learn how subpersonalities can become entangled.
As I discuss in chapter 15, people and relationships are made up of many different parts and experiences, and this can create conflict or can be a way to build strength. The challenge is to learn to draw on the strengths of each unique person and their qualities to meet life's inevitable tests.
The conclusion offers a quick summary of the guidelines presented in this book.
My suggestion to couples is that both of you first read the entire book and then talk over how much of it you think applies to the two of you. The critical element is whether you both understand that you participate in creating your own emotional reality and believe that it is possible to find new ways to interpret events that accommodate both of you. Read the skills section with care, because these skills will enable you to discover new meanings in your experiences. I recommend that you work on these skills first, then review the tools and approaches in part 3 and select whichever approaches seem most effective for you.
Trying all the approaches discussed in this book may take weeks, months, or even longer. Some of us who started down this path are still on it years later. But it has been worth it. To understand and gain control over the meanings you attach to life is a constantly fulfilling process. It begins with understanding and accepting responsibility for creating your own reality, as discussed in the next two chapters.
The goal of this book is to help reduce conflicts between couples, especially conflicts based on different perceptions of reality. These conflicts are rooted in the simple fact that we each have our own way of perceiving reality. Disagreements, maybe even fights, are inevitable. Conflict arises when we blame these differences on defects in other people's personalities, moral sense, or compassion. The solution is to explore ways to share our lives even though we experience separate realities. Using the skills and approaches in this book, you can learn to use the differences in your individual perceptions to develop a deeper, more harmonious relationship.CHAPTER 2
The minute we're born — perhaps even sooner — we begin trying to make sense of things. Most of the time it seems like what we need to learn is "out there," external to our skin. What makes sense seems predefined; it is our job to discover it. We don't realize that what is "in here" — inside ourselves — plays a major role in the way we make sense of things.
Humans are "sense-making" creatures. This doesn't mean that our explanations for events and feelings actually make sense. A perfect example is the five-year-old who holds himself responsible for his parents' divorce. We can understand how a child can come up with this explanation, but to other people, it doesn't make sense. A child usually plays little or no role in the issues that divide a couple. The child didn't cause the breakup and can't keep the parents together, but he may still feel responsible.
Children are not alone in coming up with explanations based on incomplete or inaccurate information. We've all had the experience of getting upset, only to discover that our upset was based upon an incomplete understanding or a false interpretation of circumstances. Usually we just experience a momentary embarrassment — oops! — and move on. But we often fail to realize that all our interpretations of events are the product of what we think we know.
I recently saw the story of William Crawford, a janitor at the US Air Force Academy. Crawford pushed his broom and cleaned his toilets day after day. He was quiet and unassuming, so little attention was paid to him. Then one day a cadet doing some research on World War II found evidence that Crawford might have been awarded the Medal of Honor. This is the army's highest honor. All uniformed personnel, including generals, are expected to salute any winner of the medal. The recipient's children automatically receive free admission to any of the military academies. It's a big deal.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Loving Through Your Differences"
Copyright © 2019 James L. Creighton, PhD.
Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part 1: OUR ROLE IN CREATING REALITY
Chapter 1: Whose Reality is Right?
Chapter 2: Making Sense
Chapter 3: Creating Reality
Chapter 4: Using Differences as Teachers
Part 2: SKILLS
Chapter 5: Response-Ability
Chapter 6: Responsible Communication
Chapter 7: Listening
Chapter 8: Escalation
Chapter 9: Mutual Problem Solving
Part 3: TOOLS/APPROACHES
Chapter 10: Conflicts over Values
Chapter 11: Reframing
Chapter 12: Reframing Your Life Story
Chapter 13: Self-Talk
Chapter 14: Who’s the Me in This Conflict?
Chapter 15: The Value of Being Different
Chapter 16: A Closing Comment
Appendix 1: When You Need Help
About the Author