This is a difficult post to write. Why will become clearer later on. But let’s start by talking about perception.
I think that most people would agree that perception is fallible: that every person is or has been guilty at some point in one’s life of misunderstanding another, of misjudging a situation, of filtering an experience through one’s own history or one’s own issues and misinterpreting what was really occurring. Sometimes our own past or our own fears color what see, feel and experience so much, that later we are stunned to realize just how wrong we were in our perception or in the actions we committed based on that perception.
I don’t think that this is headline news for most of us.
Perception is fallible; we are creatures who are always interpreting and filtering and we often misread and misunderstand. The people with whom we engage and the situations in which we find ourselves are mediated realities—not absolute reality. We know this acutely whenever we think we experienced the same exact thing as someone standing right beside us, only to find out that we may differ on the details, or place more or less emphasis on them, or even outright disagree on what actually happened. Even though we were both there. Even though we were standing right beside one another.
My own experience in counseling has helped me to understand just how influenced our perception is by things of which we are often unaware: traumatic events from the past, ideas about the world formulated in childhood, issues of one kind or another which we carry around as our personal set of “baggage.” And by strong emotions, like love, or fear.
None of us are immune from the constellation of factors that color, influence or determine what and how we perceive ourselves, others, and the world around us. We are all suffused in our own stuff (and sometimes others’ stuff too).
I think that we tend toward health and wholeness when we can accept the limited nature of our perception, and especially when we are actively engaged in naming and defining those limitations—the lenses through which we see and experience. We are never wholly liberated from our lenses or the circumstances which created them, but we can expand our range of perception by being aware of what those lenses are and how they influence what we perceive. We can also appreciate how rarely we can be fully 100% confident that what we perceived or experienced is absolutely, infallibly correct. This is not a plea for facing all of life hampered by doubt that ultimately leads us to shrug our shoulders and lament that maybe there is nothing in life about which we can be sure. Rather it is the recognition of just how deeply human we are, and that we would do well to allow a little wiggle room between what we have perceived or experienced and claims to know all the facts or hold absolute truth.
I write all of this as prelude to sharing my own experience of being wounded by the confusion of perception with fact.
Anyone who has read even a few posts in my blog would know of the pain and suffering that my wife’s decision to divorce has caused for me. One of the most devastating issues for me in our divorce was my wife’s refusal to attempt counseling with me following her decision to separate. We had differing ideas about what the issues were between us and different perceptions of how we interacted with one another. We could both participate in the same argument, for instance, but disagree on what actually even happened, on what each of us did or said, in addition to what the other intended or meant.
I felt that a good counselor might be able to bridge the distance between our vastly different perceptions and experiences—helping us to name together what was happening and why, to see how each of us had issues that were skewing our experiences of the other, and help us to see, appreciate and understand the partiality of our own perceptions while expanding our capacity to experience the perception and “reality” of the other.
I have written elsewhere on this blog about what a penetrating and liberating process it was for me when my wife challenged my behavior, when I embraced her experience and perception of that behavior over my own and opened myself up to understanding her and my own self through counseling in a way that I hadn’t been able to before. My positive experience with that certainly prompted my own hope that a similar process might free us as a couple from the suffering that both of us were experiencing.
It was a severe blow to me to never have that opportunity with my wife—to explore if someone could assist us in better understanding her perceptions of me and our marriage as well as mine for her, and maybe provide a chance for us to heal and grow. Or even—and for this I was less enthusiastic but still willing—that someone might help us to better understand the differences between us, to come to terms with how that presents an unbridgeable gap, one we couldn’t overcome, one that would result in our divorce.
What we have been left with instead are two perceptions about why my wife left which share little in common. This is the story, I think, of many divorces, especially when only one party wants the divorce.
I have no judgment toward my ex-wife as to her choice to divorce me. No one should have to remain in a marriage in which they no longer believe nor want. But the story my ex-wife shares with others about why she left me is an added layer of suffering to the pain of the divorce itself. Her story casts me in a harsh and negative light, and it has cost me the understanding, support and respect of people I know and once counted as friends. I believe that this is not a case of my ex-wife being insincere in her belief as to why she left or misrepresenting what she believes to have happened between us. It is, though, a case of the difference between perception or interpretation and the ability to know facts or the objective truth.
It hurts to think that people who have known me and toward whom I have felt great respect and care now hold opinions of me which they defend as formed on the basis of the “facts” shared with them by ex-wife. I know that I am not alone in history of having experienced this—nor am I without guilt over having formed opinions of others in my past on the same faulty premise. We relish such judgment; it is rooted in a flawed but enticing satisfaction that we “know the truth”.
Thoughtful people, even those who may believe or trust my ex-wife’s perceptions, will still allow that their acceptance of her story is based on their opinion and belief in her, and not because they are in possession of the facts of what transpired between us. Such judgment still hurts, but I can accept it. There is integrity in such a position as theirs.
Most thoughtful people will understand that there is a difference between an interpretation of what happened and the facts themselves. Of those people, the ones who have been in long-term relationships will further understand how messy a marriage can be and how two people who otherwise love and respect each other can nevertheless both misunderstand and misrepresent one another.
My ex-wife is an extraordinary person. Anyone who reads my blog closely can see that it has hurt so much to lose her because I have loved the person that she is, the woman I experienced her to be. That doesn’t mean that she, any more or less than me or anyone else, is not capable of seeing and experiencing through her own particular set of lenses. This is true for all of us who are human beings.
It is a small hope I cling to, that when anyone hears my ex-wife or me share about the actions, thoughts, intentions or character of the other, that they understand that what they are hearing is perception, interpretation, experiences filtered through a whole host of lenses, through our own specific set of issues. People, even two people in a marriage, are mysteries to one another, mysteries not easily and never fully unraveled or explained. Any story we tell of someone else is partial, cracked, never immune from error. In other words, it is our perception.
I started out saying that this would be a difficult post to write. To be misunderstood, misinterpreted or misrepresented is painful, most poignantly when it is someone we know and love and trust to really see us, to really know us. Each of us deserves to be able to speak for ourselves about ourselves. We deserve minimally to have people’s first-hand experience of us serve as the basis for their own perceptions about who we are. At least then we can own the judgments we make about others as being validated by our own perception … and own too the mistakes we make when our perception proves flawed.