(And 4 reasons to reconsider)
“It’s like you’re a mirror. A mirror staring back at me.” – Justin Timberlake
I could feel the veins in my neck bulging.
The veins in my neck never bulge. I’m the emotionally unhealthy guy who internalizes everything – no matter how much the circumstance warrants a reaction.
The more she explains how my negligence of our relationship makes her feel, the more I want to jump in my truck and spend the weekend alone on the open road neglecting our relationship.
Instead, we resort to our, then, increasingly popular nightcap. I walk out slamming the door behind me for dramatic effect. She crawls under the covers in tears—but not before setting up her wall of pillows down the middle of the bed just to remind me, when I do come to sleep, that things are not okay.
As most of us know, conflict is unavoidable and necessary to any healthy relationship. But anyone that has braved it also knows that when not done well, fighting can take its toll on a marriage.
I, for one, wasn’t keen on slamming doors and pillow walls. And somewhere in my hunt to determine why these episodes were becoming ritual, I came across what I like to call “the mirror phenomenon.”
If you’re a human and married, you may want to consider the following 4 ideas. They capture this phenomenon and have saved me from more than a couple nights on the couch.
1. A spouse is a mirror.
My wife is my favorite person on earth and definitely one of the few intelligent decisions I’ve made in life. But early on, it felt like the more I gave to marriage, the more it asked of me and the less it returned to me. She felt consistently unloved. I felt perpetually exhausted, which led me to the quick and easy conclusion that my wife had a bottomless love tank, or at least a leaky one.
It took me an inappropriate amount of time (and yelling matches) to see that my wife’s “leaky-tank-problem” was actually just a reflection of a much deeper brokenness in me. I’ll save the details for a pseudo-depressing conversation over a cup of coffee. But as it turns out, I deal with deep trust issues that tend to keep me emotionally unavailable, regardless of how much I try to not be with my wife.
It’s the phenomenon that Solomon of the Bible alludes to when he says, “As in water, face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects man.” Or the truth of what my favorite Jewish rabbi, Shalom Arush, is pointing at when he says,
“You didn’t get married to correct your spouse. You got married to be corrected, by using your spouse as a mirror.”
If you’re anything like me, you’re not immediately buying the idea. The suggestion that my wife—with her free choice, separate past, and unique set of issues—was a mirror for me to see and deal with my own dysfunction felt far-reaching. Yet the more I’ve tested the idea, the more obvious it has become that I wake up every morning next to a mirror — conveniently there to reflect the good, the bad, and the ugly.
2. The critic never wins at marriage.
I spent the first few years of marriage pointing the finger at my wife’s ”bottomless love tank.’ When my wife tried to emotionally connect with me, I would default to thinking she was needy which gave me just enough reason to keep her at arms length. Yet, as I experimented with the mirror phenomenon, I began considering the possibility of her perpetual drive for connection to be an effect of my trust issues and the ensuing emotional unavailability. (Imagine that?)
If we look in a mirror and see that our shirt is wrinkled, we don’t iron the mirror. We iron our shirt. It’s the same with our spouse.
This phenomenon removes all grounds for a critic in marriage. It turns our attention in any given issue away from our spouse and puts it on us. It replaces the natural act of critique with the very unnatural act of internalizing.
This business of internalizing is all about taking inventory of common critiques we have of our spouse and to ask, “How might their behavior or attitude be a reflection of my own issue or the way I treat them?” The goal of this question is to transmute the very natural critique of our spouses into a self-evaluation that inevitably identifies broken thought and character patterns. Then, all thats left to do, as we’ll see next, is to take responsibility
3. Fixing things is for mechanics (and Coldplay).
If the mirror phenomenon is in fact true, our spouse’s issues are not our responsibility to fix. Once we resist critiquing and make the correlation between their actions and the things that need to change in us, our business is simply to own the issue and fix ourselves. In essence, we’re taking 100 percent responsibility of the relationship.
Marriage is not a fair deal and has little to do with equality. Though a popular sentiment, you don’t simply take 50 percent of the responsibility for a relationship and expect your spouse to meet you halfway.
Once again Rabbi Arush puts the idea in perfect layman’s terms when he says,
Every married individual should feel that he or she alone bears the responsibility for peace in the home. Neither should police the other because a person that’s occupied with finding fault in someone else fails to see his or her own faults.
Yes, my wife was being needy. But trying to fix her neediness would have only perpetuated the real issue, left my wife more unloved, and I certainly wouldn’t be talking to you today as exhaustion would have claimed my life long ago.
4. Marriage isn’t fair, but it is reciprocal.
A popular psychiatrist Marina Benjamen reflects on the best part of the mirror phenomenon when she says,
A fundamental law of relational theory is that when any part of a system changes, the entire system—meaning all other parts—will be forced to change in response. What this means in a marriage is that if I create a change in my own attitude and behavior, my spouse and the marriage itself will automatically be forced to change. This is a powerful truth to embrace but, unfortunately, most of us are so busy blaming our partners for their shortcomings that we neglect to assert our power to create the very changes we want.
Perhaps the best part about this mirror phenomenon is that, according to relational research, the more we fix ourselves, the more our spouses change.
Let’s do our marriage a favor. Next time things hit the fan, try taking a look at the plank in your own eye first. Nine out of ten times, the speck in your spouses is long gone by the time you’re done.
These are thoughts I explore more in my book, “Marriage Rebranded,” where I debunk modern myths about marriage, tell awkward stories, and offer unorthodox best practices that could help anyone write a better marital narrative for themselves. Get more info here or download a free chapter here.