You see what you are looking for

I had a lot of fun with the video from my last post. I had a couple of people around the office view the video to watch their reaction. Wish I had a video camera on their reactions as they watched it for the first time. I realize that this is a familiar video for those of you who read my last post. For those of you who missed it, here is is again:

After I showed my colleagues the video, they laughed at their focus and how that took away from their ability to see the “moon walking bear”. One insisted the replay of the video in the second part of the video wasn’t identical to the initial clip she watched when she was counting the ball tosses…I had to rewind and replay the entire video to her to convince her that indeed, she truly had missed the moon walking bear the first time.

As I was doing therapy last week, I realized the incredible metaphor this video is for systems theory, which is a model we use in therapy. When I work with a couple, there will be times when Spouse A can only focus on certain parts of the relationship, insisting that it is a certain way, and that Spouse B is very much the kind of person that “always _____” or “never _______”. Spouse A “knows” how the relationships is, knows what is wrong with it. Spouse A has been watching very carefully, and are, after all, living the relationship, so they KNOW exactly what the relationship is like. (Just like my colleague knew that 13 balls were tossed, and that there was NO dancing bear) There is no maliciousness to it, no manipulation, no “convenient” shaping of the truth…just an honest recollection of the experiences as experienced by Spouse A.

Spouse B can insist on another reality–as a matter of fact, they KNOW that it is not like how Spouse A describes it…because Spouse B is very focused on the “Black clothed team” and can’t help but see the dancing bear…but would have little or no concept of how many balls were tossed and caught by the white clothed team–Spouse B doesn’t see how that is important…and besides, Spouse B is too caught up in convincing Spouse A that the dancing bear really exists.

Life is not a one minute video clip…similar scenarios are happening again and again over time. What happens, over time, that after one finds what one is looking for, is that one responds to that pattern in a logically responsive way…the “dancing bears” genuinely aren’t seen, and aren’t responded to–and therefore, aren’t reinforced.

So, for example, the wife that is expecting her husband to not help her with the dishes, or putting the kids to bed, gets annoyed at what she knows she will be disappointed by. She doesn’t see all the yard work he does, or the way he plays with the kids after supper. Guess what happens over time?

If you’re a dancing bear that is consistently invisible despite moonwalking through situations, wouldn’t you stop showing up?

And then, when Spouse A says there is no dancing bear, Spouse A is right…the bear gave up cuz it’s too hard to keep showing up and being unappreciated and ignored.

The husband doesn’t bother with even the yard work and his hours get longer so there’s no time to play with the kids…and his disengagement has extended itself.

And the patterns of a relationship start to deepen as different parts of the system become entrenched in what they see and respond out of that…because what you see eventually becomes more of what actually happens.

Problems that couples bring to therapy are not nearly as simple as all this. But the video illustrates the point that often you will find what you are looking for in a relationship. Things that reinforce what you are looking for are noticed and highlighted, while other things that don’t reinforce it aren’t deliberately ignored…they genuinely aren’t on the radar.

You can imagine what it is like being a therapist in the middle of this…trying to hear each person’s reality as very valid and important, and trying to de-escalate the situation to allow the spouses to cool enough to develop some compassion and insight…to recoginize that the spouse has a different reality that is authentic to their point of view.

Further complicating the situation is that the couple will go home, and Spouse A will notice the “dancing bear” part of the relationship, and insist that it was newly inserted that week after the therapist pointed out the Spouse A couldn’t see the dancing bear. And it may have been, because now Spouse B thinks there is a fighting chance it will be noticed. Or Spouse B may have been continuing to do it all along, but not the focus allows it to be seen. So, now Spouse A can see the dancing bear, but thinks it’s been inserted purely to prove a point…and continues to be angry and dissatisfied. There is nothing Spouse B can do to convince Spouse A that the dancing bear was there previously.

Marriage therapy is a delicate process whereby the therapist encourages Spouse B to have the dancing bear show up, working very hard to have Spouse A accept the dancing bear, appreciate Spouse B’s efforts, and understand the patterns of the system that created the situation. Both Spouse A and B contribute to the complex interplay of acting and reacting to develop a difficult situation. Over time, resentments develop in each And B as each seeks to be understood, and be in the relationship in a way that works. Spouse B’s will often have concerns that if it wasn’t recognized before, could the dancing bear be ignored and unappreciated again? Spouse A will wonder, what if I learn to enjoy and delight in the dancing bear, and learn to trust it, and then it disappears again–dare I relax and enjoy it now? It might be less painful to ignore than to have it and lose it. Ouch. You see how there are ripple effects and issues to deal with.

If it were as simple as seeing dancing bears, marriage counselling would be simple. But its not that simple, and the pain and emotions are raw and real. But it’s something to think about.

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