Reverse Mirror

In dialogue, mirroring usually refers to reflecting back what the other has said to let them know you heard them. A reverse mirror, on the other hand, refers to holding the mirror up to yourself, to examine your contribution to the dynamic between you. Of course, when you’re upset, it is much easier to see what your partner does and says than what you’re doing. But true growth comes from examining and altering your own ways of relating, which is really the only thing you’re in charge of anyway.

When Tom and Sally entered my office and took their seats, I immediately felt the tension between them. He sat on the couch, she sat in the recliner, as far away from him as she could get. I hadn’t seen them in several months so I began by asking how they were and where they wanted to begin today’s session.

“I just feel he keeps disrespecting me,” she began. I saw him stiffen. They had just moved into the house of their dreams on a cul de sac where their two kids, 4 and 8, could play safely, in contrast to their previous rental home on a busy highway. He had just had a promotion to division manager for his company, she had just completed her training to become a massage therapist and had opened her private practice in a lovely room off their garage with a separate entrance. When she had called to reschedule, she bubbled over with excitement about this new stage of life they were entering. Now they were obviously in a bad place. I leaned forward to hear more.

“I did all the packing, I know he had to work, but I thought he would at least take the kids when he was home from work I’ve just had it. And then when he yelled at me and threw the broom, I just got in the car and left.”

“She does this all the time!’ he cried. “I had no idea she was this upset until she started sniping at me with her sarcasm and gave me that attitude. I know she did more packing than I did, but I have to work. I helped all I could over the weekend. I’m sick of the way she treats me!” He pressed his lips together and crossed his arms over his chest and looked away in disgust.

I reflected back what I had heard each say, then instructed them to face each other and begin a formal dialogue, taking turns speaking and mirroring each other. They grumbled but complied. “Who would like to start?” I asked. She began to pour out her frustrations. “I can’t stand it when you yell and curse at me. And throwing things just drives me crazy. It’s just not fair!”

I turned to him. “Mirror that.” He was seething but through gritted teeth he said: “ What I hear you saying is you don’t like me to yell and curse and throw things. Is that right?” She nodded. “Is there more?” again through gritted teeth.

We continued on in this structure for a while, but I felt unsatisfied. Each had a long litany of complaints. Neither seemed to be able to calm down and truly empathize. When I learned that a few weeks ago their argument had escalated to talk of divorce, I stopped them.

“Moving is stressful for everyone. It’s a big upheaval,” I began. “I have known you all for quite a while now.” They nodded. “I know you love each other. I believe you can work this out. Let’s try something different today. Remember “ I extended my hand with my pointer finger out “when you point your finger, there are three pointing back at you?” They nodded again. “You are frustrated with each other, but you are really only in charge of your own behavior.” I held my hands up with palms towards my face, “Forget for a moment what terrible things you see the other doing. Only look at your part, as if looking into a mirror.”

“Like a reverse mirror?” she asked.

“Yes, go inside, take a few deep breaths, and examine your part in all this. Identify one thing you regret. In a moment I’ll ask you to share with each other.”

We sat in silence for a few moments. I noticed their eyes lose focus and their attention go inside. When they both raised their heads, I asked who would like to start.

She began: “I regret leaving when I got so angry. I know that when I get upset, I shut down and often I leave. I know that really upsets you. I’m sorry I did that.”

I had him reflect back what he heard her say. Then he spoke: “I’m sorry I lost my temper, cursed, and threw the broom.” As she mirrored him, I noticed how starkly the atmosphere had changed between them. There was a softness, a sensitivity now. Just in time because our time was up.

“We have to stop now but I encourage you to continue to reflect on your part….and enjoy your new home!” We made another appointment.

“I’m going to do that reverse mirror a lot,” she said before she stood up to leave.

“I will too,” he added.

I have used this reverse mirror exercise with many couples, even some so reactive they are unable to mirror. It has made a difference many times.

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