Sometimes, I wish I could crawl inside Susan’s head to see everything she’s thinking and feeling. I’m sure she’d say the same about me. But even after all these years of being happily married, we can’t completely know each other — and that’s OKAY! Let’s just say we keep each other on our toes! However, many couples become so desperate to “know” their spouse that they mind-read and unintentionally create negative labels (or schemas) that can really hurt a relationship.
As we learned in a previous blog, many couples have expectations or assumptions about each other, and we carry those around for a very long time — to the point where we begin to see each other through those filters. Schemas are the next step. They are our way of understanding others, but what we think is the truth usually isn’t the case.
The power of perception can often be deception
We cannot “get into” the mind of other people — even our spouse’s mind. So we watch them from the outside. We listen and observe their behaviors, traits, patterns, quirks, qualities, perceived motivations and intentions, things they say and do — and then we place labels on them. These are called schemas, a set of conclusions that we have come to about that person to get a “psychological portrait” of them.
We all do it — every day. And they become our reality; they are what we believe to be true about our partner. And what you feel, what you give, what you ask for, and how you communicate are tremendously affected by how you’ve labeled your partner. Sadly, these schemas can become rather negative. Are any of these labels about your spouse familiar?
Here are a few examples from Couples Skills by McKay, Fanning, and Paleg:
On three or four occasions, Jill observed Andy getting angry and shouting at the kids. She began to suspect that he had a hard time understanding and empathizing with them. Some years and many angry episodes later, Jill saw Andy as not empathetic. With each angry episode, the schema got stronger and more malignant. These days, Jill’s picture of Andy has begun to include a sense that he’s uncaring as well. Her own anger is increasing. She feels less generous toward Andy and less desire to be with him at all.
Bill observes that his wife is usually the first to pull away from a hug. On top of that, she speaks at times in a clipped and hurried style, frequently withdraws into crossword puzzles or a computer game at night, and that she rarely initiates sexual contact. He has put these behaviors into a category labeled “cold.” And the schema of his wife as a cold person now influences him in many ways-from the amount he spends on her birthday present to his recent temptation to have an affair.
As you can see, once we have established these schemas, and the more events there are to support them, they become our reality. Consequently, they become more difficult to break. And two things happen:
- Attention is paid to only information that “fits” our label or portrait of our partner. This is called confirmatory bias. It is natural to filter out or ignore anything that doesn’t fall into line with the image of them that has already been created. When negative thinking happens, there is no room for positivity.
- The mind often plays the same thoughts over and over like a tape that is on a loop. This is called mental grooving. If we do not adequately process difficult incidents or events, we continue to see them in the same negative manner. So our negative description of their personality and behaviors persist and endure.
McKay, Fanning, and Paleg also state that because people tend to use schemas to explain ambiguous situations and behavior, schemas have a vacuum effect. We use negative schemas to explain a lot of behavior that you just plain don’t understand. And because much of what anyone does is ambiguous when we’re viewing them from the outside, a lot of your partner’s innocent or irrelevant behavior will get sucked into a negative schema.
Strong Negative Label (schema) = Greater Suction Power
All we are saying here is that labeling anyone — especially our spouse — can lead us down a very dark path where we create inaccurate realities about each other. And most of the time, we are creating these schemas without realizing it. To overcome these labels and schemas, we must talk to each other and communicate on a much deeper level. This helps us understand each other’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc. — straight from the horse’s mouth — rather than relying on patterns that don’t really tell the entire story.
If you follow this lesson, you’ll have the safe and connected marriage you both deserve.
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Did we leave anything out? What are ways you and your spouse overcome negative schemas? How did you feel once you got answers to your questions? Please send us a quick email and help us keep this conversation going. mike@MikeandSusanDawson.com.