“My sense is, you’ve got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in the way that it should have been resolved”. President Obama’s words sum up many conflicts between two people that lead to acting “stupidly”. Professor Gates and Officer Crowley may both have acted stupidly to some degree – but there are legitimate truths that led to over-reactions that ought not be dismissed. In my work with couples these are the keys to conflict resolution. What’s behind these over-reactions and what can couples do about it?
No one perceives emotionally laden situations accurately. Our memories filter these events according to our preconceived notions about the world and we selectively take in new events based on these “schemas”. Schemas are mental sets that our brains organize to condense loads of information about people, places and things into quickly identifiable matches and mismatches, via neural short cuts. So we hear a bark and the brain concludes, “dog”. Schemas also contribute to the creation of biases and stereotypes because the more oppressive or threatening a situation seems to be, the more likely we are to create a short cut to identifying a potential future threat. An employee who was emotionally abused by his father as a child may immediately conclude that a boss raising his voice is an “abuser”. A black man who has been racially profiled may assume, “racist”, when a cop asks him to show ID in his own home after a reported break-in. A white police officer’s evaluation of whether a black man’s conduct is sufficiently “disorderly” to warrant arrest is also influenced by his schemas about black men.
When people appear to be over-reacting to a situation they are genuinely reacting to what they think they see, that has been filtered through their schemas. That's why eyewitness testimonies contain inaccurate, disparate and contradictory recollections of events.
Schemas and Couple Conflict
Escalation of conflict, over-reactions and contradictory recollections of events are exactly what I routinely deal with when I counsel couples – and schemas are driving them too. Each partner comes to the relationship with a set of preconceived ideas and biases about what it means to be husband, wife, man, woman, parent etc. When one member of a couple feels psychologically or physically threatened by the other in the midst of a conflict, negative schema flare up and trigger responses that project a stereotyped characteristic onto the partner. Here’s a sample exchange from a woman who was devalued by her father as a child and a man who had an absent father and a manipulative, controlling mother.
She: You deliberately withhold affection and compliments just to hurt me! You know how much it means to me to hear you say something as simple as “You look nice today” and you go weeks without noticing anything about me instead, just to be mean!
He: I’m not going to compliment you just because you say I should. I’m not some boy you tell what to do. You’re just needy and like playing the victim to get sympathy!
Each member of this couple is speaking with schema-driven biases. It’s tough to change behavior in situations like this because (1) there is often some truth to the current perceptions, and (2) the emotions are valid, even if perceptions are exaggerated or false.
There is often a nugget of truth because when we choose romantic partners, we unconsciously select someone with whom we can play out our unfinished emotional business - we pick someone who contains significant characteristics that fit our schemas, whether negative or positive. Download “What is Chemistry?” on my web resource page for more on this. The man and woman in the above example each unknowingly chose someone who was most likely to repeat their parents’ behavior. The resentment and distrust they experience with each other is an order of magnitude stronger because mental sets that say “men are withholding” or “women are controlling” have been activated and superimposed over the current argument.
What Couples Can Do
Because the emotions during the conflict are valid, telling this couple that they are “over-reacting” would invalidate and alienate both of them. They would be justified in feeling indignant and misunderstood – as would Gates or Crowley if you simply dismiss them as over-reacting to the arrest circumstances. Instead, it is much more productive to get each partner to understand and empathize with the other’s experience by learning more about the historical context in which the strong reaction was fomented as well as details of the current incident that each interpreted differently or might have missed. Whether it’s Obama sitting down with Gates and Crowley over a beer in the White House or a husband and wife sitting down with each other with or without a therapist, let’s use this opportunity to take a closer look at our own schemas when conflicts ignite in ways that might seem out of proportion to the circumstances.
See Professor Gates and the Criminalization of Black Men in America for some historical truths that contribute to schemas in the black American experience.