Marriage, Arguments, and Reality

Şerafeddin Sabuncuoğlu (1385-1468)

I have no idea how this image is relevant.

I had an argument with my wife this morning. Arguments don’t happen very often any more, but if we didn’t have them I would worry that one of us had been replaced by an android.
To protect the innocent I won’t go into details, but the facts are these: I approached a problem based on an incorrect assumption on my part, and she responded based on an incorrect assumption on her part. It culminated in poor decisions on both sides, and adjourned when I turned on the shower water to wash my morning workout away.
You know what that means, right? Shower philosophy time. I love thinking in the shower, and there are ample scientifically proven reasons why the shower is one of the best places to think. Regardless, I began reviewing the facts and analyzing the events.
What exactly had gone wrong? Of course I could see most of her faults and mistakes as clear as day. Seeing the error in others requires no talent, no intelligence. Figuring out what I could have done differently, now that takes skill.
After what seemed like a few seconds but may have actually been closer to a few minutes, I spotted the fundamental issue. I didn’t spot all of the issues, I’ve never been good at that, but I spotted the fundamental, baseline issue from which all others had sprung: I had assumed that she and I shared the same basic viewpoint on the situation.
The idea that people see the world completely differently isn’t radical, new or even a little surprising. This is a principle that we all live with and deal with on a regular basis. And yet somehow we still manage to forget that others don’t always see things exactly the same way we do. A situation may be laid out so obviously and plainly for us that we take it for granted that others will see it that way too.
Of course, it goes a lot deeper than that. Scientists, philosophers and psychologists have all postulated in one way or another that reality itself only exists because we exist, and that each person’s brain essentially assembles reality from its inputs. Under this extreme view of the world, each person lives in a completely separate reality from the next, and nothing exists at all unless it is being experienced by us.
I think that’s what the whole “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it does it make a sound” idea is referring to. Of course the movement and energy released cause shockwaves to carry through the air regardless, but is it really a sound if there is no human there to interpret it as such?
Clearly I’m beginning to digress. Regardless of whether the fallen tree made a sound, the truth is that we all have a certain reality that we live in that is different from the reality of those around us.
Have you ever struggled with something in your life that you saw was not a problem for others, and you felt like they were all in on a big secret that, if you knew it, would enable you to overcome the problem with ease? I know I have felt that way, and I’d like to think that everyone experiences that feeling from time to time.
Never was this feeling more poignant to me than during my mission in Mexico. That was two years with little more to do than sincere, intense personal reflection and improvement. I constantly worked to improve my life in as many areas as I could. And yet, I always felt like I was a few steps behind where I should – or, rather, where I could be. Others around me seemed unconcerned with many of the things I was struggling with.  Much of the world seemed to be in on a secret that was just beyond my grasp. If I could just figure out what it was that they knew, I would be free from my struggles.
Much of that feeling later revealed itself to be unrelated to any secrets. People were unconcerned with what I was struggling with simply because they were unconcerned. They weren’t struggling with it because it wasn’t important to them. However, those who I truly admired for their mastery of the things I was struggling with; they did seem to know something I didn’t. I asked questions, I attempted to learn the secret, but I couldn’t get it out of them. Either they didn’t know they were in possession of this secret, or they weren’t spilling the beans for some reason.
Later, the idea of some universally known secret surfaced again when I was talking to a psychologist for help dealing with an irrational fear of needles. Simple things like blood work and seasonal flu shots were making my blood pressure spike in a way that was deemed unhealthy, so I got to sit down with a trained psychologist.
I rather enjoyed talking with the psychologist. I think I learned more from him than he did about me. However, when we veered away from the needle issue and discussed other problems in my life, I realized that he could see the solutions to my problems but he wasn’t going to tell me what they were. I could see that he saw my life just as I see other people’s lives, just as I saw my wife’s actions after our argument this morning. All of my flaws, mistakes and misunderstandings were clear to him.
So I asked questions, tried to get in on the secret. I wasn’t direct about it, of course. I wanted to probe him a little, see what he would do to help me with my problems. What I found was that he was trained to allow me to continue living with my delusions.
Delusions: time to take a quick break and explain what I mean. A true delusion is a pathological, mental illness. Real delusions involve things like thinking someone you’ve never met on the television disapproves of you in some way, believing that you are under surveillance, or feeling like you have the power to control something outside of your true realm of control. For a delusion to be a true delusion, you must be absolutely certain of it, the presentation of hard conflicting evidence cannot sway your belief, and there has to be something expressly implausible, plainly untrue or just bizarre about it.
By its most basic definition though, a delusion is a false belief held with absolute conviction despite superior evidence. False beliefs that spring from faulty perception are not defined as delusions. However, I would like to use the word delusion here, perhaps calling them minor delusions, for two reasons.
First, we all are susceptible to developing pockets of beliefs in our version of reality that are just plain untrue, and yet when faced with contradictory evidence we are too attached to our false belief to simply accept that we are wrong. While not technically delusions, they aren’t always the result of some malfunction in our perceptive senses, and they don’t always come from missing information. They result from information being pieced together incorrectly. And sometimes it can be a rather subjective thing to say whether one version of reality is really truer than another. For those reasons, I like thinking of these as minor delusions.
Also, the word just works so well. I could call them false beliefs, but that’s two common words whereas delusion is a single, much more fun word.
Back to the story. The psychologist wasn’t making any effort to correct my delusions. It was clear to me that my version of reality conflicted with what could be considered a more universally acceptable version of reality. This is not to say a more popular version of reality, but one that holds more universal truth than my own.
Of course, I’m only talking about little pockets of my reality. I wasn’t living in a world that is any more twisted or untrue than yours or anyone else’s. But in a few little areas of my life I had incorrectly assembled my perceptions into an understanding of reality that wasn’t entirely accurate.
The fact that I was willing to question my version of reality means that I had an open enough mind to go about fixing it, and the psychologist alluded to that, but he made no move to guide my efforts or hand me the truth. I could see that he wasn’t about to let me in on the secret.
Eventually, in at least one of those pockets of delusional belief I was able to identify what I had assembled incorrectly. I did not immediately put things together the right way, but I found the error. Once I indicated that I knew how I was wrong, the psychologist was much more open about the issue. In fact, he was helpful in piecing things together in a better way. He didn’t hand it to me, but he offered a little guidance.
I realized that the secret wasn’t really a secret at all, it was just reality. The feeling that everyone else knew something I didn’t was the realization that I had a minor delusion. Only after identifying the flaw in the delusion was I able to begin reconstructing that portion of my reality into something more accurate. At the completion of that process, one could say I was finally in on the secret.
The psychologist’s behavior taught me a lot about how to handle the delusions I see other people living with. The fact is that we cannot push our reality on others. It just doesn’t work. Until the person identifies a flaw in their perception on their own, they will continue to believe that there is nothing wrong with the reality they live in. This comes down to a universal rule: First and foremost, the only reality that matters is your own.
Learn it well. The only reality that matters is your own. The same is true of the person next to you, and the person you live with. It doesn’t matter how much more right you feel that you are, if they haven’t found the flaw in their reality, then there is no flaw and no amount of pointing it out on your part will make them see it. In fact, the truth or solution that you see might be coming from a delusion on your own part. Caution must be exercised.
This idea actually isn’t new to me at all. I’ve known it since I was a child. You cannot change others. You cannot make them think like you or see things your way. I didn’t completely understand the principle that people had a reality that was different from mine, but I still knew not to attempt to counter their delusions.
A second rule to remember is that blatantly conflicting with another person’s reality is almost always a terrible idea. It is a tactic that might be effective if employed properly, knowledgably and very carefully, but even then it can rarely be executed without causing hurt feelings and pain. It’s like dropping a nuclear weapon. Not a good idea unless you’re willing to live with the consequences and you’re sure that the benefits outweigh the risks. Also, you must fully learn all of the risks, and I am not going to enumerate them here. There are more risks than you might initially realize.
There is a way to influence people without causing this conflict though. First, back to my argument this morning, I should have asked more questions to get a clear picture of how my wife saw the situation. I skipped this step. I’m normally better about it. That is a huge failure on my part.
You cannot help someone unless you know as much about their reality as possible. Find out what it’s like to live in their world. That is the first step.
While doing that step, take a hard look at your own reality. Try to figure out if you might have a little pocket of delusion there as well. Look only at the facts surrounding the situation. Objectively and with an open mind look for evidence that you might be wrong.
Once you have a clear picture of the facts, you must, with a neutral and unemotional viewpoint, reassemble them into a version of reality that you are reasonably sure of, regardless of your original view on the matter. If this process exposes a delusion of your own, accept that you were wrong. We are often emotionally attached to beliefs, especially after an argument where we have been irrational. You must shed these emotional commitments to your beliefs and be willing to believe the truth at any cost.
In your mind, or on paper if it helps, list the ways that your viewpoint was wrong and list the ways that the other person’s viewpoint was right. Both lists should always have at least a few points. If you can’t fill anything in, then admit defeat. You can never help anyone change their views if you cannot identify how they are right and how you are wrong. Even if you were 100% right about the issue, you must find a few ways that you were wrong, either in your behavior during the argument or in your approach to the situation. Most importantly, figure out how you were wrong according to the other person.
Working within the other person’s reality, and keeping in mind all of the ways they were right, you must selflessly devote yourself to figuring out how to help them figure out that they have a delusion without telling them. It has to be their idea, their discovery. This is super trick, and may take a lifetime of practice.
Once you’ve figured out how to do it, you execute your plan. Ensure that they are aware that you fully understand their point of view, and stress the ways that they are right. Do not tell them that you have the intention to change them. Do not tell them about all of the work you are doing to bring the argument to a conclusion. They should only know that you admit where you are wrong, you acknowledge where they are right, and you fully understand their point of view. Beyond that, your subtle attempt to help them find the flaw in their reality should be covert, well-meaning and it should go almost entirely unnoticed.
Some might call this manipulation. It is. If motivated by love and sincerity, and if it is done maturely and passively, without pride or feelings of superiority, then it can be a powerful tool that you can use to help your spouse.
I have not mastered this process, nor am I completely sure of its veracity or completeness. However, the fact is that no two realities are completely identical, and yet when two people marry they should become one. They should, as far as possible, attempt to share a reality. They should communicate, work together and be completely open with each other. The two do not need to share the same interests, ideals, philosophies, beliefs or toothbrush. But they do need to share a reality. Each must be open with the other in such a way as to allow their partner to see things the way they are in the other’s reality, and each must have an open enough mind to find and shed delusions when they are encountered.
Our argument adjourned when I turned on the shower water, and before I got out I decided on an apology. It is my belief that all arguments should end with both parties apologizing, regardless of who was right and who was wrong. Even if you were right, you still perpetuated the argument somehow. You made a mistake. Apologize for it.
In the shower I attempted to identify what had thrown her into an emotional warzone. I thought I had inadvertently attacked her on a homemaker level. So I apologized for making it sound like I didn’t appreciate the work that she does, and assured her that I am very grateful for what she does and it wasn’t my intention to sound critical of her work. She accepted my apology, but didn’t apologize to me. I can forgive that. No big deal.
Later she told me that it wasn’t the way I sounded unappreciative that had offended her. It was my offering of advice rather than help.
So I made another incorrect assumption. This one didn’t cause an argument. Good. However, it was now apparent that she had assumed that I was trying to force unsolicited advice on her. This gave me instant access to a large portion of mostly unexplored regions of her reality. Also good.
I will continue to form a clearer picture of her world, her reality. As I refine my picture I will be better equipped to help her. I can only hope she is doing to same for me. She learned that I wasn’t attempting to give her advice, but she hasn’t learned in what way, or what I was attempting to do. I fear that I have learned far more about her reality than she has about mine. However, we are both making progress at our own pace, and we are both improving a little each day.
And that makes me feel good. I have a great deal of respect for my wife, and I admire her strength in dealing with someone who obviously thinks far too hard and long about things. It rarely matters who is right and who is wrong when you’re married to your best friend who loves you whether your right or wrong. You can’t ask for more than that.

2 Responses to “Marriage, Arguments, and Reality”

  1. 1 Andrea September 22, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Unfortunately, when you attempt to define someone’s world, you’re limiting your ability to understand them. By clearly identifying how she felt about that argument and assigning her a paradigm, you can’t make allowances for the fact that Rochelle is an extremely dynamic person. The next time you offer advice and she gets upset it could be that her reasons have changed entirely. I completely understand the need to be able to understand perspective inasmuch as we are able, but don’t let your conclusions keep you from realizing that her perspective is always going to be a journey just as yours is. That journey is a great thing to share as long as we don’t allow conclusions to become too comfortable.

    • 2 Mediocre Renaissance Man September 22, 2011 at 12:32 pm

      Certainly. This only refers to that person’s world at the time of the misunderstanding. Everything is dynamic and changing. Even when there is no conflict though, it is a constant activity of mine to monitor how things might be changing in the worlds of those around me.

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