Who’s That Stranger In My Bed?
Communicating with the person, rather than the projection.
Posted Oct 22, 2012
Relationship experts often say that, when your relationship is in trouble or when you’re in a ferocious argument with your partner, you should stay right there and wrestle through the issues until they’re resolved. They want us to “keep communicating” to “clear the air” and to “talk it through.”
But have you noticed that often this doesn’t really work? That the longer you try to hash it out, the more entrenched you can become in your original positions? You may end in a truce -- but only because you are both too exhausted to continue. And as soon as you gain your strength back or that issue raises its ugly little head again, you’re right back in the same place you left off. Why does this happen?
We project all the time, not just in our most intimate relationships. Our experience of our external reality and the people in it are based almost totally on our internal experience and subconscious beliefs. If we believe that all women are vindictive, that’s all we see, hear, and experience. From that vantage point, even Mother Teresa can look pretty mean and spiteful! Or if we believe that all men are “players,” then no matter how loyal, conscientious, and honest he is, that guy will always come across as untrustworthy.
The tricky thing is that we often project even more in an intimate relationship, probably because we have more on the line. We fall madly in love with the projected image of our perfect prince or princess. She’s tender and sweet and gorgeous. He’s strong and courageous and brilliant. Of course, our partner can’t live up to those unrealistic projections. She shows up cranky one day in old sweats and a baseball cap. He blows a circuit using his hairdryer and doesn’t know how to get the power back on. Our unrealistic expectations are shattered.
But rather than stopping right then and trying to get a clean, clear sense of who our fallen prince or princess is, we make up new stories, new projections. Think this isn’t accurate? Try asking your partner’s mother or his little sister to describe him and his character. Or ask one of your wife’s best friends to tell you what your wife really cares about or what moves her. Not that anyone else’s projection is necessarily clearer than yours. But it might show you some blind spots and interesting perspectives on this person that you love.
We all know how it feels on the receiving end when someone just doesn’t “get” who we really are or where we’re coming from. “How could she think I would do something like that?” “Why does he always take offense when I’m just teasing?” “Why doesn’t she trust me?” “How come he can’t see how much I care about him?” It’s really frustrating when someone assumes things about us that we just don’t feel to be true, whether it’s a spouse, co-worker, or even just an acquaintance.
To add to the confusion of projections, we tend to take our intimate partner’s words and actions much more personally. When a good friend spends many hours at the office and neglects to call as often, we rarely assume it’s because they don’t care about us, right? Have you ever thought that your friendship was in trouble when a buddy slipped and called you by the wrong name? Or when he chose to watch the football game rather than chat? Or when she forgot your mother’s birthday? Probably not. But we often leap to big conclusions about small actions in our intimate relationships.
Am I making it sound hopeless? That there’s no way through this mess of projections? Actually, simply staying aware that you’re operating with all of our projections takes you light years beyond many people who assume that their perceptions are truth! The object is not necessarily to become projection-free, but to stay aware of them and perhaps soften them so that you can respond to a situation rather than react to your projections. Make sense?
And there are a few things you can do to help with this, especially during the heat of battle. First, take a deep breath. Then another. Those deep breaths will signal your autonomic nervous system that you are not in danger, so your defenses can step down a notch. Next, be a conscientious listener. Focus on really trying to understand your partner’s point of view as if you were going to explain it later to a third party and want to make sure you’re accurate. Next, notice when your hackles get raised. Does your reaction seem very familiar, like you’ve been here before? If so, odds are that you’re reacting to a projection. Finally, ask yourself the following questions:
How can I see this differently?
What if my basic assumption about this is just plain wrong?
If his/her intent really is positive, what is that positive intent?
By using this approach, “clearing the air” will take on a completely new meaning!
Matthew B. James, MA, Ph.D., is President of The Empowerment Partnership, where he serves as a master trainer of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), a practical behavioral technology for helping people achieve their desired results in life. Dr. Matt has also immersed himself in Huna, the ancient practices of the Hawaiian islands of forgiveness and meditation for mental health and well-being, and he carries on the lineage of one of the last practicing kahuna. In his most recent book, Find Your Purpose, Master Your Path, Dr. Matt melds the ancient wisdom of Huna with modern psychology to assist us in leading conscious, purpose-driven lives. He contributes regularly to The Huffington Post and Psychology Today blogs. For more information and to receive his NLP Fast-Track Video eCourse for free, visit www.NLP.com