One of the things that Charlie and I noticed in interviewing couples for our book, Secrets of Great Marriages, is that nearly all of them demonstrated a capacity to not only see the beauty and goodness in each other but to reflect it back to one another on an ongoing basis. Like the rest of us, these people had their share of “imperfections” but they tended not to focus or dwell upon flaws, and gave their attention to the aspects of each other that they appreciated and valued. As a result of receiving the reflection of these qualities, many of them reported a shift in their self-perception and they developed a more positive sense of themselves as a result of their partner’s “feedback”. In essence, people internalize their partner’s positive perceptions which may enable them to override some of their negative self-judgments.
Over time and with many repetitions, this process results in a gradual transformation of one’s self-image. Although these couples are not practicing counseling with each other, the outcome of this process is similar to the outcome of a successful psychotherapeutic experience. Their feedback wasn’t limited to only the positive qualities but also included areas that were problematic.
This information was, however delivered with sensitivity and care and without judgment or condemnation and was only given when it was requested or solicited. What is illuminated in these stories is the process of validating and affirming the value of another. We refer to this process as “believing eyes”. This is the experience of having one’s gifts and capabilities reflected back to us from a loved one who believes in our beauty and goodness, especially during the times when we do not. There was a strong tendency with the couples we interviewed for the dominant view to be positive rather than negative or inferior. We saw consistent and continual evidence of each partner reflecting the other’s gifts and wisdom. This phenomenon occurs when one partner sees in the other something that he or she can’t see in himself or herself and the strength of that perception overrides the other person’s self-doubt. The couples that we interviewed frequently provided “corrective experiences” that allowed them to heal from past trauma and emotional wounds that may have left them feeling damaged, inadequate or deficient.
When couples bring their believing eyes to each other, they are able to break the spell of ancient family programming and limiting life scripts that had often been assigned in childhood. In their willingness to lean on each other’s perspective, they gradually became able to see themselves in a very different light. The result was that they eventually became more trusting of themselves and their own value and worth. There is a widely-held belief that it’s wrong for a person to want or need affirmation from others. Resistance to reliance upon others’ validation often seems to arise from the premise that doing so diminishes our authority to accurately assess ourselves and creates an unhealthy dependence upon the judgment of others. The people in our study who were able to receive this positive feedback, overall were generally strong, independent, self-reliant, and resourceful as individuals. They seemed very comfortable and accepting of their own interpersonal needs and did not demonstrate any obvious need to prove their independence nor deny their desires for connection. All of us have moments or days or weeks when we experience a loss of faith in ourselves.
These lapses of self-trust are often brought on by external events: a failure, a disappointment, or a loss of some kind. Sometimes they seem to arise out of nowhere for no good reason. At these times when our best efforts to restore a sense of renewed confidence in ourselves fail us, the words of a trusted loved one can provide the encouragement we need to begin to believe in ourselves again. Nearly all of the couples with whom we spoke were able to give and receive this kind of acknowledgment to each other, particularly during times of stress. Relating to each other from the perspective of believing eyes conveys an implicit yet powerful message of trust, confidence, respect, and faith not only in what this person can do, but who they are. Only a person, who has earned another’s trust and respect, has the power to override the feelings of inadequacy and shame that arise when we are caught in the grip of self-doubt.
Believing eyes also are able to see gifts and capabilities in others that may not have been evident until they were reflected back through the eyes, words, and feelings of a loving response. These reassuring responses become less necessary over time as the partners come to internalize and integrate the feedback and ultimately trust more deeply in themselves. “I knew that it was possible to have a deeply loving marriage,” Drew told us, “but what I didn’t know was how that experience would grow me into being a better person. There’s no way in the world that I could have ever accomplished what I have, and become who I am, without the support of Shirley’s belief in me.” Although nearly all of these couples had been together for several decades, they continued to bring an attitude of curiosity and inquisitiveness to their relationship.
This high level of interest in each other brought out the best in them. One woman reported that the intensity of her husband’s interest compelled her to bring forth undiscovered aspects of herself, and that in the process, she found herself being more interested in her husband as well. “It was not just in my perception. He literally became a more interesting person as a result of the quality of my attention.” Her husband confirmed that this was his experience as well. It is possible to view all of our loved ones through believing eyes and to be influenced by their belief in us as well. In this season of giving, that has a strong emphasis on material gifts, it is lovely to put attention on the simple gifts that we give and receive throughout the year, and that we exchange with those that we love and care for. It doesn’t cost any cash, only a bit of our time and attention to let those we love know that we believe in their visions, dreams, greatness, abilities, passions, ability to heal, and worth.
Where would we be without those who have believed in us over the years? The answer is: certainly not in as good a shape as we are right now. And we have been that encouragement for so many others too. It’s a fine tradition to keep up in the New Year!
-=+=-=+=-=+=- As we approach the new year, we invite you to give yourself the gift of pausing long enough to consider the unspeakably valuable gift that it is to be alive and awake in this body, in this world, at this time. No life is without its difficulties and challenges and yet as so many of us know, it is often the ordeals themselves that grow us up more fully and open our hearts more completely. Moments, sometimes brief, sometimes extended, of suffering occur because such experiences are inherent in the nature of being human.
Nothing personal. Just as it is the darkness that enables us to appreciate the light, so our struggles can also help us to appreciate those moments when feelings of gratitude, peace, and love are present in our hearts. We are writing these words on the shortest day of the year, which means that today marks the beginning of six months of increasingly greater amounts of sunlight in every day. Let us together acknowledge and celebrate the light that shines within the hearts of all human beings, particularly those whose suffering and fear has obscured that light from themselves and others. It is with great pleasure that we take this opportunity to thank you for being a part of our community and to wish for you and all of your loved ones (may the circle continue to expand), a most joyful and blessed holiday season and new year. With deepest appreciation and gratitude, Charlie and Linda