The common human tendency to put things into simple categories can poison a relationship!
A lonely wife criticizes her husband as uncaring, thoughtless, and she says she suspects he is unfaithful. He withdraws from the verbal barrage and turns to others who treat him more gently. She then accuses him of having personality flaws that cause him to spend time with another woman. She doesn’t see that her aggressive negative interpretations and judgmental language contribute to the very behavior she feels so hurt by.
He feels hurt and thinks she is an unappreciative nag, and withdraws in resignation. He fails to see that his withdrawal aggravates her emotional pain and loneliness that drive her negative behavior.
When emotions are strong, many of us instinctively tend to perceive the other as a simplified caricature based on salient negative traits. Casting the other as “the bad guy” easily distracts us from reflecting on what’s wrong with our own behavior. This objectifying tendency may have had survival value in earlier times when security depended on affiliation with a tribe of those who looked and talked and thought like us. Thus, a simplified, polarized view of “us” versus “them” may have once had a high correlation with safety vs. danger.
But is protection from “the enemy” the goal to which she really aspires with her husband? More likely what she really longs for is for him to treat her tenderly and lovingly, to pay attention to her and to care about her feelings and her interests. The consequences of simplified “good-guys/bad-guys” thinking are unlikely to get what she really wants. That kind of thinking contributes to a cycle of attack and defense, not reassurance and approach. I would argue that thinking in polarized categories is a primitive leftover we sorely need to move beyond. This way of thinking manifests in sectarian violence, gang conflict, high school cliques, and probably has roots in the behavior patterns of our ancestors the apes, among whom forming alliances to wield strength and power against other groups is commonplace (see Demonic Males, Wrangham and Peterson, 1996). Thinking and acting in these patterns produce enemies: quite dysfunctional when we would rather have an equal partner with whom to negotiate our respective interests and reciprocate caring.
What are alternatives to “us-them” thinking? We need new or different ideas that escape the polarity of good vs. bad. We need concepts that will help us be more humble – to help us be more understanding of the perspective of the other when we are in conflict with them.
To resist the temptation to reduce people and situations to simple “types” we need to maintain a sense of the complexity of people (including ourselves). People want respect for their labors and for a lifetime of experiences. We tend to want to preserve the places, language, and traditions that carry our particular sense of home and the familiar. It can help to keep in mind that the perspectives of the other are as intricate and worthy of respect and consideration as our own, rather than reducing the other to “evildoer” or some other demeaning category.
Mental health workers make a basic distinction between a person and his or her bad behavior. We can address behavior that we don’t like while avoiding the message that the person is bad. Communicating that the person is bad undercuts our ability to contact the parts of the other that are motivated to change the behavior that displeases us. Making sweeping negative judgments of the other as a person (rather than specific behaviors) not only evokes defensiveness, it also blinds you from perceiving those parts of the other that could lead to more desirable behavior: the other’s wish to be a caring partner, to be seen as someone generous and loving.
Perhaps the most constructive thing one can do when things aren’t going as you would like them to in a relationship is to focus in compassionately on your own felt experience. Try to get past the initial impulses to strike out or complain or withdraw, and reach for the underlying way you feel hurt or misunderstood. Give yourself a chance to say how it hurts and what you long for. Articulate the implicit vision you had for how things would happen if it were ideal for you. After doing this, you might find yourself in a position to ask for a respectful hearing of how it is for you and to request behavior changes that would feel caring to you.