The most powerful experience that I have ever had was one that taught me that it was me, and me alone, who chose what meaning I took from a situation. As a prelude to the experience itself I remember visualising a scene in which my mother was repeatedly hitting me (this was not an unusual event in my childhood). Each such memory always triggered feelings of hurt, shame and later anger and violence within me. On this occasion as I looked at the scene in my mind I saw a different interpretation, one in which this woman was just at the end of her tether. She couldn’t cope and her lashing out was a way of communicating this. As I continued to look I saw it differently again; I saw that my mother was just doing to me what had been done to her. She was unconsciously passing on the violence in her lineage. She thought this was a normal part of bringing up children. As I continued to see the scene yet another interpretation presented itself to me; my mother was teaching me how to be strong, how to survive violence. I cannot now remember all the different meanings that were presented to me. But it was obvious that all the meanings related to the same actual events; what differed was the meaning taken from them. And it was clear that I had total choice over which meaning to choose. As a child my choices were limited by my stage of development, dependence on my mother and so on. But as an adult there were no such constraints. So which option was I going to choose?
Actually the really liberating aspect of this episode was the realisation that any choice existed at all. The next liberation was that I was the only one responsible for making any choice. This exercise aims to help you see this in the context of a personal relationship that is in trouble.
The first step is to choose a particular time when you felt hurt by something that your partner did or said. Be as precise as you can and do not amalgamate different times into one. The reason is that the second step requires you to identify as carefully as you are able what was actually done or said. This may sound easy – but it isn’t. And the reason why it is not easy is that until now you have chosen to interpret this scene as one in which you are hurt. That choice encourages most people to subtly alter what was actually said or done in order to make the hurt more poignant, deliberate and intentional. So to really get down to what was actually said or done requires a major effort of will and discrimination.
When you think you have got the sequence of words or/and actions as precise as you can then step back from the action and put yourself in the role of an observer. As this observer create a story that explains what occurs that does not presume that your partner is out to hurt you in any way. This is the reframing step; it puts the actions and words in a different context.
One way to try to do this is to write down the main assumption in your ‘hurt’ interpretation. This main assumption will have a number of implicit assumptions supporting it. For example if the main assumption is “s/he doesn’t care about me” the supporting assumptions might include “s/he is fed up with me”, “s/he wants to end the relationship” “s/he thinks I am no longer attractive”, “s/he is getting their own back at me” and so on. When you have identified three or four of these supporting assumptions then state the opposite of each one. So the above list would become “s/he still has time for me”, “s/he wants to make the relationship work”, “s/he still likes me”, “s/he is trying to sort things out”. Now try to create a central assumption that is consistent with these opposites – and with the events that actually happened. Obvious options are “s/he is making an effort to put things right”, “s/he is not understanding me” and “s/he is struggling as much as I am in this”.
If you succeed in the reframing step then you will feel it emotionally, and you may even remember details of the interaction you are working with that had previously been overlooked by you. One feature of interactions which carry a strong emotional charge is that we conveniently overlook details that are inconsistent with the emotional charge. So you’ll not be surprised to find that it is precisely these overlooked details that can be most helpful in suggesting an alternative interpretation of the interaction.
Another set of clues that can help with the reframing are to listen to what your partner has said about the interaction whenever you have talked (or argued) about it. Rather than discount what s/he says be open to the possibility that they are doing their best to tell you their version of what happened and what they intended. Their version will almost certainly have some of those overlooked details that do not support your ‘hurt’ frame, and their intention may be an excellent clue as to how you could choose a different meaning.
There are many web resources available on reframing. A general introduction can be found at http://changingminds.org/techniques/general/reframing.htm.
A very simple introduction to its use in relationships is at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/wellbeing/6466124/How-to-use-Positive-Reframing.html .
A more detailed account of how reframing can be incorporated with discharging emotions can be found here http://www.nvo.com/psych_help/nss-folder/articles/2Positive%20Reframing.htm . This article ends with the following quote: “I advise each partner to recognize and acknowledge how you reject the other partner’s opinions, perceptions and views of reality. This is a difficult task and will require getting used to. The ultimate goal is to make a commitment to remove all forms of rejection out of the relationship. This might require that you think before you open your mouth to reject and judge.”