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How Your Partner Is Also Your Mirror

... and why experts say "every accusation is an autobiography."

Peter Bernik/Shutterstock
Source: Peter Bernik/Shutterstock


Bill was the playful one of the pair. He had a job but striving, worry, and stress were not his style. Hardworking, serious Michelle didn’t think Bill was as responsible as she thought he should be. They argued a great deal about who would do which tasks around the house. Their arguments never seemed to get resolved.

Michelle complained that Bill was more of a child than an adult. In response to Michelle’s criticisms and judgments, Bill became defensive. Both were convinced that they were right. The kernel of truth in each of their points of view kept them stuck in a painful pattern, each with their heels in cement:

  • Michelle: “I need more help around this house. You act like such a kid. Where is your ambition? You are way too laid back. You seem lazy to me, and I can’t see how you will ever get anywhere in your life. I feel like the mom here. Can’t you just grow up?”
  • Bill: “I’m not goofing off; I’m enjoying my life. You are so uptight. Why can’t you chill out?”

Bill responded defensively to Michelle’s criticism, which resulted in mutual anger and an impasse. When they had suffered a great deal, they were motivated to come to counseling and receive some help. Through the counseling sessions, Michelle got curious enough to take a deep look at her part in their breakdown. As she examined the content of her concerns with Bill, Michele was able to become aware of a part of herself that felt overworked and overly responsible. She noticed that she got aggravated whenever she perceived Bill as “not handling his part." Michelle was able to identify that she was terribly envious of Bill’s ability to take such good care of himself.

Out of this inner exploration, Michelle became aware that her inner driver was in control of most of her life, and that she was in serious need of more “downtime." She had to face her fears about taking this time, and why she had so much resistance to taking it. When Michelle was finally able to own up to how much she admired Bill’s capacity for being good to himself, and how lacking she felt in that area, then she could open to letting him teach her about responsible self-care. Instead of feeling resentful about how he took time off to play, she could learn from him.

As Michelle began to change, Bill, rather than continuing to see their situation as “Michelle’s problem,” began to recognize ways in which he was contributing to the situation. He began to learn from Michelle’s industrious and giving nature and offered to do more of the household upkeep.

When we learn effective conflict management skills, we learn to look at ourselves more of the time rather than at the other person. And in that exploration, we learn to uncover the ways in which “every accusation is an autobiography.” That is, the concerns that I have about you reflect aspects of myself that I haven’t yet fully recognized or accepted. It’s this lack of internal resolution that causes us to meet our partner’s responses with anger, frustration, and judgment rather than with curiosity, understanding, or openness.

When Michelle took on the practice of seeing Bill as a mirror to show her things about herself that would be helpful, she discovered some important information that equipped her to make better decisions in her life. She could recognize in Bill the part of herself that she had been denying. Michelle admitted that the overly responsible part of herself had been in control most of her life. She admitted that her pushy style had been offensive to family, friends, and co-workers over the years, and had cost her cooperation and closeness with them.

Bill accepted responsibility for the way he contributed to the situation, rather than continuing to see their arguments as Michelle’s problem. As they both began doing their parts, Michelle felt less angry towards Bill and he, having nothing to defend himself against, became motivated to take on more responsibilities around the house.

This couple went on to establish a strong working partnership. Bill is still the more playful one but contributes enough to the household and their partnership to satisfy them both. Michelle learned a great deal about being more adept at taking care of herself by allowing for more rest and relaxation. And she learned too, about being more tolerant and respectful of different ways of being in the world. Michelle realizes that when she is having a strong emotional response to Bill that there is some valuable information present for her to discover about herself, information that can enhance her life.

Michelle has become accomplished in her pattern of tuning in to her own experience to the point that she regularly intercepted even a whisper of accusation in her mind toward Bill or anyone else. Before it comes flying out of her mouth, she takes a look to see if there is something that she can learn about herself. She has learned enough to have a sturdy working partnership with Bill, a more compassionate relationship with herself, and enjoys the added bonus of more fun and play.

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