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Is Marriage like a Rorschach Test?

Posted Aug 27 2010 3:36pm

Have you ever noticed that you and your partner sometimes see things very differently? The very same things. Reminds me of the classic Woody Allen film “Annie Hall” with Woody himself (“Alvy Singer”) and Diane Keaton (“Annie Hall”), in which we see a split screen with both of them talking to their separate therapists about sex:

Alvy Singer’s Therapist: How often do you sleep together?
Annie Hall’s Therapist: Do you have sex often?
Alvy Singer : [lamenting] Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.
Annie Hall : [annoyed] Constantly. I’d say three times a week

Fact is, most marital conflicts arise not so much out of the outlandish behavior of one or both partners, as out of each partner’s perception of the “meaning” of the behavior.

As Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach discovered in the 1940′s, rather than perceiving things objectively, we tend to “project’ our needs, personality, motivations, and backgrounds into how we see things. He developed a test, the Rorschach test, (or “Inkblot” test, as it is sometimes called)  to diagnose mental and personality disorders and to better understand and analyze how a person mentally functions.

Recently, Cartoonist Chato Stewart made up his own “ink blot” test as shown above.

Test Yourself
Just for fun, let’ s test this principal! What do you see in the above ink blot? Does it differ from what your partner sees? Click here to go to a web page where you can list what you see. I will report the group results in the next newsletter. Would you predict that there will be a wide variety of responses?

Seeing the behavior of your partner in a  different light
According to marriage therapist and writer Brent Atkinson, Ph.D. ( ), “A hallmark of people who are re good at getting their partners to treat them well is that they know that when they get upset with their partners, it doesn’t necessarily mean that their partners have done something wrong. They realize that there are many different ways of prioritizing things that can work in relationships. People who are less effective in their relationships don’t realize this.”

Seeing the behavior of your partner in a different light can drastically change how upset you get over it! See it one way and you might go ballistic. See the same behavior from another perspective and you may be much more tolerant, understanding, and conciliatory.

So, what are these different “lights” under which you can interpret your partner’s behavior that upsets you? One way to do it, according to Dr. Atkinson, is to see their behavior as a way to calm their nervous system. Research shows that there are five specific differences in nervous system wiring that most often result in partners becoming critical of each other. Briefly they are:

(1) Independence First vs Togetherness First
One partner prefers to engage in activities and tasks independently. Often is critical of other by saying things like “You want me to read your mind. You expect too much. You’re  too needy.” If the other prefers to engage in activities and tasks together (“togetherness first”)  , they criticize by saying thing like “You live in your own little world! You are selfish. Any moron would have realized that I needed help. I shouldn’t have asked.”

(2) Invest in The Future First vs Live for the Moment First
One partner believes in “work first, then play.” Other partner believes in living for the moment first. The “work first’ partner often criticizes the other as “being lazy,” and irresponsible or says : “You are like a child who has to have everything right now.” On the other hand, The “play first” partner criticizes the other by saying thing s like “You’re anal, neurotic, anxious.”

(3) Predictability First vs Spontaneity First
One partner seeks security, predictability and order first, then feels safe to experiment within the safe parameters. The other seeks adventure, creativity, open-mindedness. The “safe” partner may criticize the other by saying things like “You’re reckless.” The adventurous one may see the other as boring, or even create conflict by saying something like “you’re a coward.”

(4) Slow to Upset vs Readily Upset
One partner feels that getting upset doesn’t help anything. He/she doesn’t make a big deal of things, thinking “It’ s not the end of the world if everything doesn’t go the way you want it to.”  The other partner may  think it is normal to feel upset when something seems wrong, deficient or less than it should be, thinking, “If nobody gets upset, nothing changes.” In this scenario, the slow- to- upset person criticizes the other by saying things like “You are never satisfied. You’re a negative person. You’re not happy unless you have something to be upset about.” In defense, the readily upset partner fights back with criticisms such as “You’re a fake. Underneath it all, you get just as upset as I do. You’re just afraid of a little conflict! You’re a wimp!”

(5) Problem Solving First vs Understanding First
One partner feels better by doing something about the upsetting situation with the philosophy “solve the problem or make a plan and you’ll feel better.” Unfortunately they often criticize their “understanding first” partner by saying things like: “You’re a hopelessly negative person, a whiner, a victim. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get over it. “ The “understanding first” partner fees better by feeling understood.  However, they often criticize their “problem-solving” partner by saying things like “You could care less about how I feel! You just want to pretend the whole thing never happened.”


As we teach in our local anger management classes, in our private marriage therapy sessions, and in our distance learning programs, realizing and accepting that you and your partner may have different ways of “doing” life” goes a long way toward marital happiness and less conflict.

For more information, be sure to visit our websites and resources listed below:

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