By Mary Friedel-Hunt
Like many teenagers I had posters on my bedroom walls that said what mattered to me. One was red with two yellow lines forming simple profiles of two people facing each other. At the bottom it said: “My how you’ve changed since I changed.”
As a retired psychotherapist/grief counselor for 50 years, I have shared this quote many times with couples (or others) struggling in a relationship. I can still hear my husband, Bill, early on in the therapy process with a couple, say to them after they had expressed their frustration and anger with their partner, that he would suggest they get rid of their telescopes and bring a mirror to the sessions. He was attempting to get their attention with a statement they might remember when conflicts arose at home or in our office.
Looking at our partners or child or anyone through a telescope is about focusing on the behavior of the person they see as the source of their frustration or joy. In conflicts, if each person looked first at themselves (in a mirror), change is much more likely to occur. Starting a sentence with the word “I” instead of “you” is far more productive and far less threatening to the listener. In the ’70s, that was a much more novel idea than it is now. Most of us know this to be a fact, but how many couples (friends, parents, etc.) remember to practice this when a conflict arises?
We are typically very fast on the draw to start our sentences with “You,” pointing our finger and blame at the one we love, be it a child or adult. When two people in a relationship sit down to process a tension that exists, starting the discussion with the word “I” is far more threatening to the speaker but far less threatening to the listener. We feel vulnerable when we share our own pain or weakness or mistake. We feel strong and safe if we point our finger to the other person instead.
Most differences and issues in a relationship will more easily be solved if we take out our mirrors, look deeply at ourselves, and, yes, often with great vulnerability or even shame, share honestly what we see there. Doing that is an invitation to the other to be open and kind instead of shutting down in shame and anger.
This occurs so often with our children. We adults have the power in a relationship with a child (though often it feels to be quite the opposite). We can correct, blame, point out failings, etc., so quickly and so easily without ever apologizing or listening to the child.
Yes, most adults know this about processing issues, but my experience tells me that it gets forgotten early on leaving those who are trying to problem solve lost in controversy and repetitious arguments while shame, sadness, anger and hurt surface.
We can change all of that by being present and open.
Mary Friedel-Hunt has retired after 50 years of practice as a licensed clinical social worker and certified bereavement counselor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1036, Spring Green, WI 53588.