Perception is truth, and a powerful truth at that. How we perceive things affects how we view ourselves and others. So, what happens when your perception of something clashes with another's perception? Are each of you confused? Does it spark a conflict? Does it lead to either of you becoming angry or sad? If any of those things happen, don't worry! This difference in perception happens to all of us and it happens all the time – especially in our relationships!
In a Nutshell
If you take away anything from this article take this... Your perception is your truth, but it may not be the truth for others and that's okay. So often, I see couples come into my office and attach rights and wrongs to perception and it leads to nothing but conflict. The thing about perception is that it's in the eye of the beholder. The second you tell someone their perception of something is wrong, or incorrect you've officially invalidated their experience and in sense, part of who they are.
Let me give you an example. You're driving your car on the highway and someone in front of you brakes hard and swerves out of the way. As an automatic reactionary response, you slam on your brakes to avoid hitting the car. You manage to save your front bumper from the car in front of you but within milliseconds you hear the screeching of brakes and feel a sudden thud from the car behind you. At this moment in time there is no conflict, there are only two perceptions of the event. On one hand, we have your perception, braking to avoid collision. On the other hand, we have the perception of the person who hit you; your braking leading to their damaged vehicle. Both perceptions are true! Even when the person gets out of the car and begins forcibly yelling at you and/or insulting you... the only difference now is that conflict has entered the arena.
The Wrong Perception: Couples and Families
While you may not have been in a fender-bender with a stranger like the one mentioned above, I'm sure you've experienced a difference in perception with a partner, a family member, or even a friend. One that I feel is common revolves around cleanliness.
"When I think of a clean house I imagine the dishes done, the counters wiped (with Lysol), the toilet's scrubbed and the sinks spotless every week. My partner thinks that type of clean only occurs once a year – right before we move apartments and need our security deposit back."
Once again, we have a difference in perception, but no conflict (...yet). So how do these differences become conflict and why do they change from small stressors to relationship enders? Two processes generally occur. First, we assume that our perception is better or more accurate than our partner's. This process is covert, meaning it's an internal dialog that we have only with ourselves. Second, we invalidate our partner's perception. This process is overt and can transpire in a variety of ways such as criticizing, blaming, insulting, etc. but ultimately it's received by your partner as an attack. The assumption of betterment often leads to the invalidation but it's the invalidation that creates the toxic experience and eventually the inhospitable relationship.
So, that explains the how but now for the why. Well... We don't talk about it. That might be the obvious answer, but it's true. We continue to let these two toxic processes repeat themselves and eventually we reach a point where we can't tolerate the invalidation any longer. I mentioned at the very beginning, these differences in opinion happen to us all and they can happen at any time so how do some families and couples seem to handle them with ease while others, not so much?
Awareness & Understanding
We are all unique individuals. The way we perceive everything has been shaped by our history and will continue to be shaped by our future. So, the first part to managing these differences in perception is becoming aware that they exist. The next time you experience a difference in perception with your partner that starts leaning towards conflict, stop and ask yourself this:
"What in my life has led me to perceive things the way I am perceiving them now?"
Once you're aware of how your perception has been created move to Understanding your partner's perception. Try and answer the same question you asked yourself – "what in my partner's life has led him/her to perceive the way he/she is perceiving things now?" If you don't know how to answer that question for yourself or for your partner that's okay! Take a minute to be curious, ask questions and take advantage of this opportunity to get to know your partner on a deeper level. You may even help your partner get to know you a little better. Remember, differences in perception happen to us all, but I'm confident that taking the time to reflect on those perceptions will help you and your relationships.
If you enjoyed this article please feel free to "Like", "Share" or "Comment" on it and be sure to check back here next month when I release my next article "Aftermath of a Conflict – Repair."
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate