Posted by: Debbie Loyd | August 27, 2010

Labels matter

Like it or not, we all do it. We form opinions about other people. We do it in order to organize and simplify our world. People are complex and we can’t completely know a person, but we can observe and come up with schemas  or labels which organize many different experiences into categories. These schemas  help us interpret others’ behaviors and sometimes even their motivations and intentions. What we believe to be true about someone can be more real than what is actually true.

We do this with our spouse. This becomes problematic when we have negative schemas. Let’s take a look at how this works. When couples have conflict, it is human nature to search for the culprit. It has to be either you or your partner. Research has shown that when we try to explain our own actions, we tend to look at external pressures, but when we explain the actions of others, we tend to look at internal factors such as personality traits. As Andrew Christensen and Neil S. Jacobson in Reconcilable Differences say, “As we think over our partners’ actions, we often conduct a kind of legal inquiry in our heads. We hold a mental trial to evaluate their emotional crimes against us.” We resort to negative schemas to justify to ourselves that our partner has a defect or flaw.

Examples of negative schemas include “lazy”, “stupid”, “insensitive”, “egotistical”, “controlling”, “spendthrift”, etc. We base a particular negative schema on several observations that seem to suggest it. For example, let’s suppose that Mike is often late coming home from work and doesn’t call to let his wife, Kathy, know. Mike doesn’t talk about feelings with Kathy. When Kathy shares her own vulnerable feelings, Mike stares at a picture on the wall or tells her what she should do to fix it. Kathy sees Mike as–maybe you have already guessed–insensitive. Mike sees Kathy as lazy. When he gets home from work, he finds the house a mess. Kathy doesn’t like to do yard work with Mike and would rather be inside reading or quilting.

One of the problems with negative schemas is that we don’t question them. We tend to ignore and filter out anything that doesn’t fit. Kathy forgets the times Mike has surprised her by bringing home something that he remembers is her favorite, and Mike doesn’t notice how hard Kathy works at church and  on volunteer projects. Another way we strengthen negative schemas is to play them over and over in our mind.

The key to lessening the influence of negative schemas in our marriage is to examine them. It can be helpful to keep track of negative feelings for a few days by noticing the situations that cause those feelings, our thoughts at the time, and even the consequences of believing the schema. This can help us not only identify specific schemas but also help us see how we become part of the problem (e.g. becoming withdrawn).

After identifying schemas, the goal is to build true empathy. We can do this by exploring alternative explanations for our partner’s behavior. In Couple Skills, McKay, Fanning, and Paleg suggest  trying to understand the external pressures and factors at work in our partner such as needs, fears, assumptions, personal history, skills (or lack of skills), and perceived choices. For example, in the example above, Mike grew up in a family that didn’t talk about feelings (history). He actually is quite empathic, but he doesn’t know how to show this (skills, fear). He assumes that Kathy wants solutions, not a listening ear (assumptions). Once you decide to look for alternative explanations, you may have a very interesting and intimate conversation.  It also helps to recognize and own the disappointment you feel without blaming. Oops, sounds a little like an “I statement”–a topic for another day.

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