Seeing the Other

I’ve been thinking about Patricia Evans’ books on verbal abuse lately, because of an abusive argument on Facebook saying it’s not even a valid definition — and the argument was so hurtful, it reinforced my belief that she has a great definition.

She says that when someone defines you — tells you what you think or feel (“You’re too sensitive!”), what you want, or anything else about you that they could not possibly know better than you — that is verbal abuse.

She points out that verbal abuse begins with pretending — pretending to know what’s really going on inside someone else. In her book Controlling People, she says that many people who get into habits of abusing and controlling do it because they have created a Pretend Person in their minds. When you respond as yourself — different than this ideal, pretend person — they take it as a personal offense. They tell you how you should really be responding.

I’ve been thinking about this lately in the context of my marriage that ended after my husband had an affair and left. I was completely blindsided by the affair — I thought we were both happy in the marriage. He thought we were both miserable. In fact, he argued with me that I’d been miserable for months — even though I had journals that recorded how happy I was. We were both making the mistake of reading our own experience onto the other.

Recently, when I was writing Project 52 and looked in my journals from our years of marriage, I found plenty of evidence of fights and disagreements. But I would pray about it in my journal and remind myself that my husband loved me and make myself feel better. But I think I assumed if I felt better, than he must feel better, too. How much of my husband did I not see?

Now, in my defense, neither one of us should expect our spouse to be a mind reader. When I’d ask my husband if something was wrong, he would usually tell me he was fine — and I’d usually take him at his word. I see how messy it was after the fact.

On a less significant level, since I’ve learned the definition of verbal abuse, I’ve noticed that exactly when I feel out of sync with my girlfriends is when they make assumptions about what I’m thinking or feeling. I’ve got a friend who will praise me for spending lots of time reading — as if it’s something I’m dutifully doing instead of a guilty pleasure! Or in some other way, it’s jarring when a friend reads you wrong.

But when my friends read me wrong — they are willing to be corrected. That’s the difference with verbal abuse — an abuser tells you that your motives are bad and even argues from what you’ve said that they can prove your motives are bad. (This is nonsense, by the way.)

But how often did I expect my spouse to read my mind and know how to please me without me telling him? And how often did I expect him to be pleased when I did something for him that would please me?

I’m an INFJ — and I think that does make me prone to snap judgments about people. I got a crush on my husband rather quickly, and I still get crushes today. And once I’ve got a crush — it’s harder to see that person for who they really are. I need to remind myself that they don’t automatically see the world the same way I do. That doesn’t automatically make us alike in every respect. That doesn’t automatically mean they’re going to be easy to live with.

Those kind of assumptions can be somewhat shocking when you do try to build a home together. I’d like to go into any future relationships with eyes wide open. Not only for my own sake, but also for my partner’s sake.

And I’d like to have a humble spirit — willing to learn from him. Not only to enrich my life by seeing things from a different perspective, but to learn how I can best make him feel loved — not assuming I already know what my Pretend Partner needs.

All this reminds me of a quote from C. S. Lewis’s book, A Grief Observed:

“Not my idea of God, but God. Not my idea of H., but H. Yes, and also not my idea of my neighbour, but my neighbour. For don’t we often make this mistake as regards people who are still alive — who are with us in the same room? Talking and acting not to the man himself but to the picture — almost the précis — we’ve made of him in our own minds? And he has to depart from it pretty widely before we even notice the fact.”

Lord, help me to see the other person in front of me and not the Pretend Person I’ve invented and that I want or expect to be there.

Part of loving someone is seeing who they really are. May I learn to love like that.

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