Projection and Distortion, more from David Schnarch and “Passionate Marriage”

The following excerpt from David Schnarch’s “Passionate Marriage” caught my eye as I was reading a couple of days ago. The chapter is “Your Crucible Survival Guide” and the section is Holding onto Yourself Requires an Accurate Picture. The quote starts on page 333 of a 408 page book, this means that when something catches my eye as I’m trucking through to the end, it’s significant. A concept, statement, or thought, has to be so substantial as to still my quickly moving eye. The following quote is one of those concepts/statement/thought. (Bold is mine.)

We all have distorted views of our own lives–it’s part of being human. We develop ways of stringing together events that are plausible and give them particular meaning. Sometimes we create overly bland pictures of our childhoods; other times we may overemphasize some points and ignore others. Overall, the interpretation and emotional impact of things remembered–not just things forgotten–are blunted. The truth is often hidden–right out in the open–camouflaged as something else. People make a lot more sense (and seem less crazy) when their picture is accurately focused; until then the hazy image can be interpreted in ways that they prefer.

Invariably, poorly differentiated people hold onto the part of themselves that constructed the distorted self-portrait. They demand that their partner understand them, in part, because they don’t really understand themselves. They feel understood, accepted, and validated when their partner sees them the way they picture themselves. Their partner’s refusal to see them the way the want to be seen is upsetting. But the problem isn’t a failure to communicate: their spouse can’t understand them the way they demand, because they view their own behavior and the details of their life differently than their partner does. This discrepancy challenges their inaccurate picture of themselves–which they have difficulty maintaining to begin with.

You may think it’s a problem when your partner won’t ‘accept you the way you are,’ but consider what happens when you demand that he validate the distorted lens you use to look at yourself, your life, and your marriage. The problem in many marriages is not that spouses won’t validate each other, it’s that what gets validated is an inaccurate self-portrait. Distortions and projections keep us from seeing our partners and ourselves. That’s important to remember next time you feel like demanding your partner ‘understand’ you the way you understand yourself.

Here’s what caught my eye: demanding validation for a distorted self-portrait. What does this mean exactly? In my opinion, it means that I demand that another person see me as I see myself. This can work in two ways. 1. I may demand that someone view me as awesome as I think I am, which leads to a worshiping situation. In this case, there’s an automatic hierarchy created in the relationship, which results in one person consuming the other person in order to satisfy the attention appetite of the consuming person. There’s no room here for two distinct selves; just one self in love with itself. Narcissism should come to mind. While Schnarch isn’t talking about this narcissistic attribute in relationships, I think it applies. One can easily up-sell themselves as much as one can down-sell themselves.

And that leads me to: 2.  (The down-sell) I may demand that someone view me as poorly as I view myself. (And, this is inherent in what Schnarch is talking about, but I’ll tease it out a bit differently.) It’s not just that I (and I’m using I to make writing clearer) have a “false” perception of myself that is fabricated from a hyper-focus on a negative event or a glossing over of a bland childhood; it’s that I legitimately have been handed the script for a negative view of self and am refusing to read from any other script. I then force others in my life (and here, again, we can expand from the marriage relationship mentioned above out into other relationships like friendships/work relationships) to read from the same script. The problem is everyone in my life is the worst method actors and can’t (for the life of them) stay on script let alone read it correctly.

In other words, I have had traumatic experiences that have radically altered my self-perception and now I look through that experience and claim it as my identity. Anyone who comes up against that identity with an alternate identity for me (what they say/see to be true) is shut out. To remove from me or challenge my trauma-identity, would result in the loss of myself. My trauma-identity is my shell that protects me and keeps people away and either you play along (validating my trauma-identity) or you fight it and then reject me and (still) validate my trauma-identity. It’s lose/lose for you; I control the whole thing and, thus, it’s win/win for me.

I allow my brokenness to be the genuine thing about me. It also becomes my justification for things, like: not changing, rejecting those who won’t play along, and defaulting to the “see, I knew I was always a failure” when I’m rejected. It’s the defensiveness and anger that rears her head because someone dare ask her not to see herself through the lens of her past. It’s the, “You just don’t get it, do you!?” that flies from spiteful lips or bounces around an irate mind. Who likes to have their identity–that they’ve mistaken for their essence–ripped from their death grip. As Schnarch mentions above, “This discrepancy challenges their inaccurate picture of themselves–which they have difficulty maintaining to begin with.” I need you to play along because I’m barely keeping this act alive;  your playing along helps me dupe myself and is the fodder for me pressing more and more into that distorted self-view.

If you’ve ever become angry because someone pushed against your trauma-identity, then you know exactly what I’m talking about and explaining. The scariest thing in the world is to step out from this broken identity (and I don’t mean identity of brokenness; I mean the identity is broken). To shed the costume of the always victim and leave behind the familiar and over-handled script is to step into *real* vulnerability and the unknown. (I stress *real* vulnerability because I can use my trauma-identity to share my trauma with you as an act of seeming vulnerable but I’m still standing behind that trauma. Vulnerability demands full exposure of the self in the presence of another different self. There’s no standing behind anything in the truly vulnerable.) Being willing to say, “Yes, I will move on from this; I will begin anew” demands a death of the old identity and self, new eyes and ears, even new language. It demands habitually forcing your mind to work in a different way; it demands that you train your own voice to call yourself higher. It demands a dare to believe this other identity. Dare I believe another story about me one that is future oriented and present focused rather than stuck in the past?

And, oddly (at least I find it odd), in this shedding of the trauma identity and stepping into real vulnerability, I’m concurrently stepping into my real self. My real self isn’t my trauma self because the trauma self is dependent on an other validating that story line; stepping out from that distortion demands an alterity and a self-validation. I am more myself as I move forward in the present than I am when I’m consumed with the past.

 

Another Excerpt from “Passionate Marriage”

Previous post here. From chapter 11, “Two-Choice Dilemmas and Normal Marital Sadism” (bold is me):

We have the fantasy that we have the choice between being anxious or not. Unfortunately, we don’t. Our choice is between one anxiety or another. Do something scary–or face problems from not doing it. Make an error by commission–or omission. Face the anxiety that things will change–or stay the same. Do (sexual) things you’ve never done–or forfeit that taste for life. Face the anxiety of growing up–or the terror of facing life as a perpetual child. Confront the fear of differentiation or the dread of marital living death.

These are examples of the two-choice dilemmas inherent in emotionally committed relationships. Such dilemmas arise from our human nature: we are fundamentally separate life forms who value both attachment and autonomy. … Once you realize you and your partner are in two separate ‘boats,’ you understand the nature of your dilemma: you want to steer your own boat–and your partner’s, too. We call this ‘togetherness’–as longs as you are steering for both of you. When your partner does the same thing, however, it’s called ‘control.’ If you want both absolute certainty of your partner’s course and certainty that you’re not controlling him or her–you’ve just run into a two-choice dilemma.

If you check your dictionary, you’ll find the phrase ‘two-choice dilemma’ is redundant–technically, a dilemma is a situation necessitating a choice between two or more unpleasant alternatives. However, many people think of a dilemma according to the dictionary’s secondary definition: a perplexing or awkward situation. In my clinical work I use the term ‘two-choice dilemma’ to highlight that (a) we often try to remain in our perplexing, awkward, and painful situations to keep everything in check, (b) a choice is often required to solve our situation, (c) we usually want two choices but we only get one, and (d) we try to avoid choosing (by remaining in difficult situations) to avoid losses inherent in giving up one option for another (i.e., solution). While not linguistically correct in all cases, clients have found the term ‘two-choice dilemma’ a powerful tool…

There is no point in staying dead in a living dead marriage; doing so is the main reason why monogamous marriage is not able to withstand the blows of alternative relational existences. Why are we letting some of our primary relationships kill us? Why aren’t we fighting to stay alive?

David Schnarch and “Passionate Marriage”

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been researching (heavily and obsessively, I confess) the concept of intimate relationships, specifically marriage and it’s variants. This week I’ve been reading “Passionate Marriage” by Dr. David Schnarch at a devouring and voracious rate. Schnarch is “a licensed clinical psychologist and certified sex therapist” (from the back cover). The book is, well, excellent; I’m enjoying every chapter. In fact, it’s even altered my view on the concept of monogamous marriage…for the better. Could marriage between two adults actually look like this? According to the book, it seems possible. Addressing the concepts of self-differentiation and the solid-self, enmeshment and emotional fusion, other-validation v. self-validation, intimacy and desire during sex (to name a few), the book offers a reconstructed idea of what a “good” marriage looks like, an idea I had not previously known was possible let alone actually existed. I recommend reading it (even tough I’m only 2/3 the way through), but not at work…he’s a sex therapist, and the case studies in the book will…ummm…make you wish you weren’t at work 😉

Here’s an excerpt from chapter 9 “Mental Dimensions of Sexual Experience” (bold is me):

We insist on being our spouse’s one and only–even in fantasy. On the surface it may seem like we’re following the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife,’ but underneath it’s our narcissism demanding, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods! Worship only me!’ … We don’t want our partner fantasizing about anyone else! It’s not easy to accept, even if we do it, too. Realizing they’re doing it during sex with us adds insult to emotional injury.

Research indicates that, of all sexual fantasies, thinking of someone other than your partner is the most common. These are called ‘partner replacement’ fantasies. When confronted about their fantasies about other partners, many people assume it’s better to deny everything and be glad it’s hard to prove they are lying. They think partner replacement fantasies belong to the category of ‘the few things not said each day that improve a marriage.’

Wanting to be our partner’s ‘one and only’ in fantasy is not just an extension of the principle of monogamy. It has to do with being dependent on our partner’s validation. Our mate’s sexual fantasies play havoc with our reflected sense of self. Validation from our partner evaporates while he or she fantasizes about someone else. We can tell ourselves we don’t have to take it personally. But if we’ve spent our lives pursuing validation from others, we don’t really have much choice but to take it personally when we are not the focus of our partner’s fantasies.

What I’m describing isn’t a problem if you handle it properly. Granted, ti doesn’t feel good at first. But it’s part of marriage’s people-growing machine. You can persist in hating the fact that your spouse’s fantasies don’t always include you, or you can develop a more stable sense of yourself.

For several chapters we’ve look at what happens to marriages dominated by other-validated intimacy. To review the general characteristics of partners in these marriages: (a) they have difficulty introducing novelty into their sexual relationship, (b) they experience anxiety and resist change when their partner does something new, and (c) they have difficulty with maintaining a clear sense of self when out of synch with their partner. More important to our current discussion, they are likely to tune out their partner during sex and focus on body sensations to reach orgasm. Over time, they are more likely to experience sexual boredom and resort to partner replacement fantasies for sexual variety.

Here’s the paradox: the very thing that makes poorly differentiated people go crazy over their partner’s sexual fantasies predisposes them to do the same thing themselves! People wounded by the discovery that they are not their partner’s ‘one and only’ are likely to be fantasizing about someone else. Being dependent on validation from others, they have to lie about it even while they are complaining about their partner. And in the midst of all this, they want their partner to validate them and make them feel secure. Like the exercise wheel inside a squirrel cage, this process drives marriage’s people-growing machinery.

If this pattern rings true for you so far, consider the impact during sex: desire to fuse with your partner actually increases the likelihood of experiencing less intimacy during sex. Your heads are inevitably in different places. you can  feel your partner tune you out even if you’re ‘in synch’ enough to grind.

I’m not saying that there is anything ‘wrong’ with mind-wandering and partner replacement fantasies during sex. I’m putting them in context so you can use them productively. Mind-wandering during sex is probably inevitable–but you can reduce it significantly and increase the intimacy and potency of your sex. The benefit can generalize to the rest of your life, because it involves increasing your level of differentiation.

Humans will always fantasize; that’s not necessarily a problem. The difficulty is that the way we fantasize (and hide it) interferes with intimacy and wall-socket sex. Like hugging, kissing, desire, and monogamy, fantasies operate differently depending on your level of differentiation.

While predominately about sex, the concepts discussed above apply to a number of other aspects that often plague monogamous marriage. And, good Lord, let us hear lest we cease to sense the something-fierce need to overhaul and reconfigure monogamous marriage.