When we argue with our partners, we know well how they look and sound; we could write a book about it, or at least a pamphlet or blog post. But we never think about how we look and sound when our partners are resentful, angry, anxious, or withdrawn. We don’t think of how likely is it that they perceive us at that moment to be rejecting, condescending, manipulative, controlling, or selfish. In short, we have major blind spots when it comes to emotional interactions.
There’s no shame in having blind spots; everyone has them. Only a tiny proportion of brain cells goes to objective analysis of our own demeanor and behavior, and that part receives practically no synaptic activation during emotional arousal. Our brains are simply not wired for accurate self-evaluation during emotional arousal, which keeps us hyper-focused on possible threats in the environment. That is how the people we love can seem like saber tooth tigers or selfish jerks when we’re angry or resentful.
It’s absolutely imperative to identify blind spots, own them without being defensive, and adjust behavior to compensate for them. For example, a troublesome blind spot of mine is thinking about what I’ve written that day or looking ahead to what I’m going to say in my next workshop, while my wife is talking. I used to be defensive when she accused me of not listening, because it seemed like an unfair accusation; I could faithfully repeat everything she said. But hearing is not the same as listening. I have learned to acknowledge that mind-wandering is something I do completely without realizing it. She’s important to me and I want her to feel heard. So I try to focus exclusively on her when she’s talking. When my mind wanders, I appreciate when she points out my blind spot, because it reminds me to refocus and give her the attention she deserves.
Adjusting the Mirrors
The best strategy for reducing your blind spots is to use the reactions of your partner as an aid, like rear and side view mirrors.
If you believe that your partner is acting selfishly, ask yourself if you are coming off that way to your partner.
If you believe that your partner is condescending or disrespectful, ask yourself if you are being respectful and open to his or her perspective.
If you believe that your partner is devoid of compassion and caring, ask yourself if you are compassionate and caring at that moment.
If you believe that your partner is attacking, ask yourself if you’re devaluing him or her, at least in your head. (Your partner can read your mind when your mind is negative. More accurately, your partner will read your body— devaluing thoughts transform emotional demeanor, which in turn changes facial expressions and body language.)
The questions above are especially important if you think you partner is acting like a jerk. If you react to a jerk like a jerk, what does that make you? If you react to Toddler brain behavior with Toddler brain behavior, where does that leave you?
Adjusting blind spots in emotional interactions has to be intentional, just as you intentionally adjust the rear and side view mirrors of your vehicle. If you drive on autopilot, on the road or in your relationships, failure to check your blind spots will lead to disaster. Putting a little care and effort into adjusting for your blind spots will get you where you want to go safely and efficiently.