If an adult asks two boys who are fighting what events led to the fight each boy is likely to tell a very different story. Each boy is likely to tell a story that makes him look good and the other boy look bad. We can explain this as simply their attempt to persuade us to punish the other boy. In some situation that may be the entire explanation. In others though they may actually view the events differently. Each boy may rationalize that he is in the right and the other boy is in the wrong.
Recently a woman I had some problems with explained to me why she was angry at me. She recounted things I had done but told the story in such a way that I came out as an awful unreasonable maniacal person and she came out as a pristine good persecuted woman. My view of events before listening to her was that I had been a more than reasonable person in my interactions with her. After listening to her I realized two things. One was that she really believed in what she said took place. She had convinced herself of a series of events that made her feel good about herself. I also realized that I had conveniently forgotten some of the things I had done to her that were wrong.
We both defended our self esteem by changing our perception of events so that we saw ourselves as good and the other person as bad. We created paranoia toward the other person in order to protect our self esteem. I call this the Paranoia Ego Defense or PED.
The PED is very harmful for relationships for many reasons. To illustrate consider the couple Jack and Jill. Jill has found in Jack a great husband who goes out of his way to make her happy. One day Jack and Jill go out to dinner with friends and Jill says something to their friends that is very embarrassing to Jack that Jack has repeatedly asked her not to talk about in public. Jack gets angry and leaves. After dinner Jill comes home and Jack doesn't want to talk to her. At this juncture the best thing for Jill to do would probably be to apologise to Jack for embarrassing him. What if she used the PED defense instead? In that case she would change her perception of events so that she would perceive herself as having done nothing wrong to Jack. Then she would perceive Jack's anger and unwillingness to talk as Jack being unfriendly and angry for no good reason. She might get angry at Jack for his unreasonable angry behavior and do something else wrong to him which would make him even angrier. As a result a destructive cycle is created.
Rationalize one has done nothing wrong to protect one's self esteem
|Interpret other person's justified reactions to our behavior as unfair and unjustified.||Become angry at the other person.|
|Other person retaliates.||Retaliate toward the other person and hurt him.|
|Other person becomes angry.|
Jill's PED defense could create another cycle as well. The PED defense creates a negative representation in our mind of the other person. By representation I mean a set of beliefs we have regarding the other person. If we develop a representation of the person as a bad person, then we are more likely to interpret any behavior of that person as being bad. If that person does something nice we are likely to think that person is being manipulative and is just being nice to get us off our guard and take advantage of us.
As a result a second vicious cycle is created.
One gets into a fight with the other person.
Rationalize Other Person is at fault to protect one's self esteem
|Develop a more paranoid representation of the other person in one's mind.|
|Other person acts in an unfriendly way toward oneself||Interpret other persons actions as bad and hostile.|
|Other person interprets one's actions as hostile||
Other person develops a more paranoid representation of oneself in her mind.
|Act in an unfriendly way to the other person|
In this vicious cycle the representation each person has of the other steadily gets worse. I suspect that these cycles are factors in the deterioration of many marriages. When people get married they are likely to have a positive representation of each other in their minds. When their marriages deteriorate their representation of each other becomes negative. Aaron Beck in his book Prisoners of Hate gives an example of what such a representation of a couple became in a deteriorating marriage. He quotes a patient he calls Ted who said
When we were in love, I could do no wrong. Now I can do no right.
I'm sure many married men can relate to Ted's words. Lets say these cycles destroy Jack and Jill's marriage. Jill may never realize that she lost a great husband. She'll think of him as a terrible person. What can we do to prevent these cycles? One approach is to substitute for the PED defense another defense. That defense could be taking pride in listening to criticism without immediately rejecting it as wrong, and if it is valid, trying to learn from it how to improve one's behavior. Another very important lesson is to try always to keep from forming an overly negative representation of one's spouse in one's mind and to try and give one's spouse the benefit of the doubt when interpreting their behavior. When my fiancee interprets my behavior in what I consider to be an unfair way I sometimes tell her that there were two interpretations she could have had of my behavior and tell her the positive one and the negative one and point out that she chose the negative one. I have told her how important it will be for our marriage that we tried and keep a positive representation of each other.
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