The fifty-something wife (Joyce) glares angrily at her husband, who first looks defiantly back, but then turns away in obvious discomfort. She is in the middle of a tirade. “John’s a liar. He just told me he’d take us to Paris to shut me up. He never really meant it.” John looks up in exasperation, “Of course I meant it, Joyce! How was I supposed to know I’d get a huge contract in February?” He turns to me and opens up his hands helplessly. “Tell her. How was I supposed to know?” I look over at seething Joyce and know from previous experience there is currently no chance of convincing her that John genuinely intended to do the Paris vacation, though I’m sure he did. John has had a long history of following through on such plans. At this moment she is unable to consider her angry story might not be true. One of the hallmarks of psychological health is the ability to seriously consider something you believe might be false. It is especially healthy to be able to do this when you’re upset. Noticing and accepting false beliefs is often really hard with lovers or family members (see Blog #26). Is there someone you’re close to who has trouble admitting he or she is wrong, especially when upset? Do you have trouble considering your analysis of a situation might be completely off when you’re scared, sad, ashamed, or angry? Most of us have this problem at least sometimes in our most intimate relationships. Why does this happen so commonly? Well, first of all, intimate relationships generate lots of experiences to draw from when we’re affectionate or hostile–look at all the shared history of husbands, wives, and children. Brains cherry-pick memories to support current states–when I love you my brain accesses memories of you being adorable, and when I’m furious my brain brings up memories of you being a pain. Even more, because our nervous systems were first programmed in relationships with mother, father, and other family members, the closer we feel to someone, the more likely we are to relate to them like we did to early family members–both positively and negatively. When we feel threatened, our brains reflexively try to ready us for flight or fight by generating primitive defensive states that involve distorted perspectives—false beliefs. I see this all the time in therapy, and not just in extreme sessions like John and Joyce arguing about the trip to Paris. A few examples are:
- “My boss hates me.”
- “My teenage son is trying to drive me crazy.”
- “My wife just looks for opportunities to put me down. She loves putting me down.”
- You look mad at me, but you might not be mad at me. Maybe you have a stomachache. Maybe you are angry, but it’s at another person, or it’s something we can easily resolve if we talk cooperatively.
- Maybe I should ask you what you’re thinking and feeling, and assume you know more about your thoughts and experience than I do (mostly the case, but not always as illustrated by the above borderline example).