Seeing Others as the Problem is the Problem!

Published on November 13, 2013 by

Bickering Couple in Cafe“The only change that matters is a change of heart.  Every other change alters us cosmetically but not fundamentally, modifies how we appear or what we do, but not who we are.  Our hearts change when resentment, anxiety, and self-worry give way to openness, sensitivity and love of life.”

 These are the opening words of a manuscript entitled, “Bonds of Anguish, Bonds of Love” (now revised and published in book form and entitled, “Bonds That Make Us Free”) by a man I greatly admire, Terry Warner.  Dr. Warner discusses how we tend to get all mixed up in our relationships with others, how our attempts to find solutions lead us to ‘only think of cures that make us sicker.’

Let me illustrate.  When you have a heated disagreement with your spouse, you are likely to ardently defend your position, and to be critical of your ‘opponent.’  Your frustrations increase as (s)he, with fervor equal to yours, champions her/his view at the expense of your own.

At this point your choices seem limited: you can up the ante by becoming more passionate, but experience tells you that this will only prolong and deepen the hostile feelings between the two of you.  You can fall back on the ‘silent treatment,’ which inevitably confers martyrdom upon you.  Alternately, you might try employing ‘effective listening skills;’ such tactics can momentarily diffuse tension but are also likely to fall apart because your heart’s not in it.

In the end, you’re apt to be left feeling helpless, trapped, angry, and bitter towards your spouse, making you Asicker@ than when you started.

Ironically, we tend to provoke in others the very thing we hate.  That is, what we want is validation, understanding, and acceptance, not the criticism or defensiveness that we often run into.  For instance, if I give a stern, harsh lecture to my teenage son, do I really expect him to respond, “Hey, thanks, dad, for demeaning me and pointing out my weaknesses.  I’m humbled by your stinging observations and ‘loving’ criticisms.  Your painful words have inspired me to change.  Yea, I want to be just like you?”

That’s far from the experiences I’ve had with my adolescent.  He will instead respond with resentment, resistance, rebellion, anxiety, anger, depression . . . the very things I wanted to avoid.  It’s as if my efforts to influence him have created the very resistance I hoped to avoid.  Put another way, my attempts to control my son marshal his defenses against me, making my job now doubly difficult.  My relationship with him is, in a word, ‘sicker’ than before the lecture.

Persuasion is a gentle art, not a coercive tool.  I believe that the solutions to many of life’s problems are paradoxical, that they’re closer at hand than we might think.  They are at once most simple in nature, yet also terribly difficult and elusive (largely because of how we’re viewing the situation).

They are simple because they reside within us.  That’s right.  The necessary changes reside first and foremost in us.  The very solutions to our problems often elude us because of our tendency to extend our gaze outward (seeing others as the problem) rather than inward.

The shortest distance between two points of view is a straightforward attitude characterized by honesty and humility.  Exchanging my characteristic defensiveness for a genuine (honest) appraisal of myself will lessen resistance from my spouse, children, co-workers, in-law’s, etc.  It’s hard to argue with a person if he’s honest with himself and willing to look within.

Such a ‘change of heart’ will naturally lead to an acknowledgment of the other person’s point of view.  So, while there may still be consequences for my son’s actions, I’ll be less likely to discipline him in an intemperate, reactive, self-serving manner.

I conclude with a story, told by Stephen Covey, which illustrates how bonds of anguish can become bonds of love.  (I heard Mr. Covey tell this story on video; since I have no written version of the story, I take some license in telling it to the best of my recollection.)

Stephen Covey (S.C.) saw a friend of his on the street one day and asked him how things were going.  The man mentioned that all was well, except with his 16-year old son, whom the man described as insolent and rebellious.  After hearing details of the man’s struggles, S.C. invited the man to one of his seminars.

After one evening of the seminar, the man felt buoyed by the information and insights he’d gained, and he went home, intent on straightening things out with his boy.  He went down to his son’s bedroom and said, “Son, I’d like to talk with you.”

Glaring at his father, the boy responded, “We have nothing to talk about,” and he slammed the door behind him as he left the room.

“Just as I expected,” the man thought.  “He’s as ungrateful and disrespectful as I thought.”

When he next saw S.C., the man related the experience and said, “Your stuff might work for some, Stephen, but my boy’s impossible.”

S.C. complimented his friend on his efforts but said he sensed there were still things that weren’t quite right.  He invited him to another evening of the seminar.

Following his second experience, the man felt rejuvenated with things he had not learned from the first evening.  He went home committed to resolving things with his boy.

The man entered his son’s bedroom and repeated his wish to talk things out.

The 16-year old, in evident frustration, repeated his words, “I told you: we have nothing to talk about!”, again slamming the door to punctuate his point.

His head in his hands, the man heaved a big sigh and shook his head, half in sadness, half in disgust.

When he next saw S.C., the man confessed his inability to effectively engage his son in conversation.  Sensing the man’s helpless yet hopeful state, S.C. asked him to attend one more evening, that there were a few things that could yet help him.

Following the third evening, the man felt differently about his son.  He no longer viewed him as a thorn in his side, but as a son in need of a father.

He entered his son’s room and repeated his plea, “Son, could we please talk?”

As if catapulted by lightning, his son angrily lashed out, “Can’t you get it through your head?  I said I don’t want to talk!  There’s nothing to say!”  And with that, he whipped the door open to leave.

“Son, before you go, I just wanted you to know how sorry I am for embarrassing you in front of your friends the other night.”  The man sat there, more like a dad than a disciplinarian.

His son paused at the door, looked down and bitterly muttered, “Yeah, sure you are. You don’t know how mad that made me.”  His dad could see tears in his boy’s eyes, and he knew the emotion was more sad than mad.

“I’d like to know, to know how mad I made you,” his dad said quietly.

For the next several hours, dad and son talked.  In the wee early morning hours, mom peeked her head in the door and said, “Hey, isn’t it about time you guys got some sleep?”

Without hesitation the boy responded, “Not now, Mom. We need some more time.”  He turned to his father, “Dad, tell mom we’re talking about important things.”

 Bonds of Anguish or Bonds of Love?  In every single relationship, at any given moment, it’s up to you to decide. 

Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D. is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

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