Your Version of Reality, and Mine

We construct our own sense of the way things are—including our relationships.

Posted Apr 30, 2015

“You’re a liar,” the (soon to be ex-) husband strongly proclaimed to his wife in what would be one of the last couples sessions I conducted attempting to fix a broken relationship. The couple had been recounting one of the many of fights they had been having recently, which tended to bear the hallmarks of poor communication: 1) blaming; 2) defensiveness; 3) contempt; and 4) stonewalling.

One of the things that I repeatedly attempted to do with this couple (but never achieved) was to help them move from a simple view of reality in which the assumption is that individuals directly perceive the world as it is to a more complex understanding in which individuals construct versions of reality based on their lived experiences and narratives about why they and others do the things they do. In the above exchange, as was often the case in this particular therapy, the husband was operating on the basic assumption that he saw the truth and was reacting accordingly. That is, it simply was the case that his wife was controlling, moody, critical, and rejecting. For him, those were the real facts and her saying she did not curse when in fact she did was evidence that she was a liar who made things up to make herself look good. End of story.

Virtually every human starts life off with the assumptions like the husband, that is as a naïve realist (i.e., reality exists out there and we simply perceive it). But deeper reflections reveals that naïve realism fails because the world and how we come to know about it is far more complicated than appears at first glance. All one needs to do is have one session with a couple in conflict to see why. It will come as no surprise to the reader that the wife did not see herself as controlling, moody, critical and rejecting, but rather found her husband to be defensive, insecure, domineering, and insensitive. Thus we quickly see the limits of a simple or naïve realism when we ask: Which of these is the real reality?

Rashomon is a famous film on different versions of reality
A famous film on different versions of reality
Source: Rashomon is a famous film on different versions of reality

A more sophisticated way of thinking is that these represent two different versions of the couple’s process. And the reason that there are two versions is that humans do not directly perceive a single reality as it factually exists, but rather the human mind constructs a version of reality from which people operate. Even the most basic processes of perception are “constructed” by neuro-cognitive processes. More importantly, what the perceived “facts” mean is further a function of learning history and lived experience, as well as the overarching narrative that the person has regarding who they are, who others are, and how the world works. In the above example, we see that the husband was not particularly concerned with whether or not his wife cursed per se, but rather the “fact” that she had cursed and now was denying it meant that she truly was a liar and this in turn meant that his storyline was validated and that she was to blame for their problems.

If a couple (or any group in relation) has the conception that there is a single, easily perceived reality, the stage is set for conflicts that go around in vicious cycles. The reason is that if there is only one reality then, in the context of conflict, it is the case that one party must be right and the other must be wrong. And because humans have a deep-seated need to feel they are justified in their claims, feelings and actions, the stage is set for repeatedly going over and over the same territory trying desperately to convince anyone who will listen that the other is wrong and they are right. As that fails, the next step is to engage in character assassinations, explaining the cause of the battle via claims like the other person (or group) is crazy, evil, or a lying bastard and the like (see here for more on this).

Psychologists have long documented, however, that what people “know” about themselves and others is a function of their backgrounds, motivational frames, and unique/biased perspectives. This is what I sometimes call “positional knowledge”; we inevitably operate from a particular position in the world, which is driven by many factors. For an excellent example of how different folks might experience the same entity based on positional knowledge, check out this brief clip from Dave Chappelle humorously imagining what it might be like if he (as a black man) and a white friend went back in time and encountered George Washington. Needless to say, George Washington has potentially a very different valence from these two perspectives. Chappelle makes a very key point in this clip and that is “we would both be right” (i.e., George Washington was both a great man and a slaveholder).

There are endless examples of positional knowledge, and it is easy to demonstrate empirically. I will offer two quick examples to give you a flavor. One is called “my side bias” and that is the strong tendency to offer the benefit of the doubt to oneself or people that one identifies with. Next time you are watching a sporting event among diehard fans, pay attention to the number of times the folks you are with complain about the refs or claim that the other team is getting away with murder. One of the earliest social psychological research studies showed that while watching the same game the fans of Dartmouth saw the Princeton team as cheats and instigators, whereas the Princeton fans perceived the opposite. Another example of positional knowledge is called the actor-observer bias. When we do things directly (i.e., we are the actor), we attribute our actions to the demands of the situation. However, when we observe someone else doing something, we attribute it to their personality. This is especially true for undesirable behaviors and when there is conflict. For example, if I cut in line, it is because I am in a hurry and I really need to get somewhere. If someone else cuts in line, they are an ass. I could go on and on but I will jump instead to the punchline. We humans do not operate on our perceptions of “reality” per se, at least not in any straightforward, simple way. Rather we mentally construct versions of reality that guide us in our actions. This point is very relevant for couples who are in conflict.

Calling the Field

Once couples are able to internalize the ideas that humans operate from particular positional narratives and that there are many potential truths, then space is opened up for much deeper levels of communication and sharing. To get there I often have couples engage in an exercise in which I have them “call the field." This is the exercise of sharing each partner’s version of reality. Normally, without training couples in conflict have trouble with this because as one person starts their narrative the other hears claims that make them feel attacked and they then retaliate and interrupt the process. However, once they start to think about each partner having a version of reality, they can listen with much more curiosity, openness and nondefensiveness. Why? Because it no longer is a zero-sum game where if one is right, then the other is wrong, or vice versa.

Here is an example of how I might introduce “calling the field” to a couple. (Note I only use this exercise if each member of the couple is relatively psychologically healthy and there is no abuse). Jessica and Mike have spent some time discussing your concerns and the fact that their relationship has not being going very well for the past six months:

Jessica, I hear you saying that Mike does not listen to you and that he often can be critical. In contrast, Mike I hear you saying that Jessica seems to be focused a lot on herself, that she complains quite a bit, and that she does not seem all that interested in what is going on with you. You both are fighting a lot about these things and both are feeling misunderstood and not heard. I think part of the reason is that you both are operating off the assumption that either one or the other of you is correct and right. That is, to take one example, either it is the case that Mike is insensitive or that Jessica is overly sensitive, and you battle it out about what is the right answer.

I would like to suggest an alternative way of thinking. That is that each of you, Mike and Jessica, have versions of what this relationship is, how it has been, and what the exchanges between the two of you mean. It is very possible, at least to my way of thinking, that both of your stories have validity. Indeed, as I have listened to both of you, I have found it easy to understand where you each are coming from. Thus, I am not experiencing one of you as being right and the other wrong, but both having different experiences and stories about the relationship.

What I would like to do is engage in an exercise I call “Calling the Field." That is, I would like each of you the opportunity to tell the story of your experience in the relationship, including how you felt when it started, what you felt like were the key moments, what you feel keeps the conflict going and what you wish for. Meanwhile, I want the other person to listen to this story in a different way than you might normally do; that is, in a way that is concerned with defending your own narrative. But listen to it simply as a description of the other person’s experience, a description that for the time being has no bearing on whether you are justified in your version of reality or not. Rather, try position yourself as a curious and open listener whose goal is to understand what “the field” of the other’s experience is like. Each person will have an opportunity to describe their field and then to listen.

I would like to do this because I have found that for many couples, when they actually listen to the other without the looming threat that their partner’s version of events is inextricably tied to whether or not they are justified in their actions or worth, then much deeper levels of understanding can often be achieved, which in turn sets the stage for getting more deeply at the core of what each partner needs.

In sum, naïve realism is an easy position to assume, but deeper reflection reveals it is deeply flawed. Instead, it is the human condition to operate from versions of reality that are a function of our unique positions in the world. This insight can translate into a good exercise of "calling the field", which can help reasonably well-adjusted individuals reset some of their relational conflicts.

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