the study of marriage

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Perspective, truth, and the differentiation to know the difference

On the way home tonight, my husband and I got in a...well, not an argument, but rather a moment of strong feelings, a moment of tenseness. The conversation started reasonably innocently, with me relating a story about what various women at work said about how they handle the "honey do" list at home. Different women had different methods--some husbands need to entirely own and direct the project at hand, some wives feel the need to control and delegate. My own philosophy is fairly hands-off: I may voice a desire for some particular thing to be accomplished around the house, but there is no timetable, and no expectation that it will actually be done. If I really want something done, or done at a particular time, then I pick up the necessary tools and do it myself. (At which point, my husband will usually step in and try to take over the project.)

My husband related his parents' method of negotiating these things. His mom would plan a whole project, decide all the details of what would be done and how, shop for the components, bring them home...and then the project would sit in readiness for years, while his father passively refused to do anything about it. Of course, he hadn't been consulted at all about the project, so it's understandable. At some point my mother-in-law, fed up with waiting, will pick up the tools and attempt the project on her own, but it sounds like she's not very good at it, so my father-in-law always has to take over.

I pointed out to my husband that his parents' process for getting projects done around the house is essentially the same as ours is. He was offended by that. I didn't mean to offend him, but to me, the mechanics of the situation are essentially the same. He objected that, "But the difference is that I just forget that things need to be done, I don't let them sit around for years and years!" And that's true. However, the end result, if not the timing or the motivation, is the same.

I asked my husband why he was offended by what I had said. He responded (and this is not exact words, but the gist of his statement), "I'm offended because when you pick up a project that you've asked me to do, you're telling me that I'm not going to get it done and so you have to do it."

My feelings about this, which I expressed to him: Just because I want something done, and I have a timetable for it, and in order to meet my own timetable I take up the task; that does not mean that I am "saying" that you were not planning to do it, or not capable of doing it, or assigning any other negative motivation or attribute to you. There is no accusation in my action, there is simply the sentiment, "I want this to get done now." It's not some kind of manipulation, a tactic, a ploy, or character assassination. It's merely me doing something that I want done. It's the opposite of playing the princess and expecting you to serve me.

Though I explained this, I know that he doesn't understand it. His "lens of perspective" is that I am "telling him" that he is lazy, or incompetent, or forgetful. But my "lens of perspective" is that I'm just doing some work that I want done. Who's right here?

While our current culture would say that "all perspectives are equal and valid," that does not mean that all perspectives are true. Think about the last time you were driving on the freeway and another driver cut you off. You probably got mad, and maybe cursed at that person about what a jerk they are. You probably felt personally slighted. Is your perspective that you were personally slighted actually true? Well, objectively speaking, the other driver had no idea who you are--your name, address, personality, religious affiliation, politics--so no, this wasn't a personal slight. In all likelihood, the jerk who cut you off wasn't paying attention to you at all, but rather was arguing on a cell phone with their spouse, fuming over a conversation with their boss, or otherwise upset about some situation in his/her own life. The act of cutting you off was only personal insofar as it was about the jerk. The wrong done to you had nothing to do with you, and everything to do with that other person.

For myself, I find that trying to look at the truth of a situation rather than just my own perspective gives me a feeling of freedom. I'm free from believing that people are out to get me personally. I'm free from assigning evil motives to people. I'm free from thinking that maybe something is wrong with me, because a customer service representative's attitude toward me says nothing about me and everything about them. (Of course, I mean this only in situations where I haven't initiated the negative interactions by being a jerk in the first place.)

This whole issue, of perspective and truth, comes down to differentiation. Differentiation is a somewhat awkward-feeling concept in psychology, unfamiliar to the American psyche; we know independence, and we know dependence, but we really don't "get" any other models of relating to one another. Defined by David Schnarch, Ph.D., in Passionate Marriage, "Differentiation is your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others," page 56.

When I look at the interaction that my husband and I had this evening, or see the effect of freeway behavior, it occurs to me that if we were all better-differentiated, we'd be able to see the truth more clearly, and not just react based on our perspectives. Being differentiated means fully knowing who I am, what my boundaries are, what my values are; and still being able to remain close to the people I love. It means not having to decide that they are "telling me something" about myself in their actions. It means far fewer arguments where we debate over the subtext of things, what the other person really meant with those words, that look, those actions. Of course, if a person is well-differentiated, then I assume that s/he is able to clearly communicate his/her real thoughts and feelings, with no need to manipulate, hide, or falsify.

Wouldn't it be nice to live in a world where there was no subtext, and all we needed to deal with was just that stuff that's above the subtext?


  • At January 11, 2006 10:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    "So subtext we know...but what about that stuff right out there in open, the stuff right on top. What do we call what's ABOVE the subtext?"

    "The text."

    "Okay, right. But we never talk about that."

    Love you. :)


  • At January 12, 2006 8:47 AM, Blogger mikeit said…

    I like the idea of a marriage blog. Thanks for posting.


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