Much of our experience of other people is based on the intention we attribute to each person. When another person does, or does not, do something, we interpret what that person is intending and act on that perceived reality. If we believe a person’s motivations are benign, we are more positively disposed, and if we believe they are hostile, we are defensive or offensive. For example, if I am driving and another driver cuts in front of me, I may become irritated thinking the person is thoughtless or, worse, selfish. But then I look over and see it is a young driver, a little lost perhaps, looking overwhelmed and mouthing “SORRY” as she passes my window. She does not have bad intentions, just a lack of experience. Suddenly I am not irritated at all but rather amused or even affectionately disposed. My entire inner experience is changed decisively by what I perceive to be in her mind.
What we believe another person means by what he or she says or does (or does not say or do) is powerfully shaped by what we believe to be true of the world in general and by what we think we ourselves would mean by that action or inaction. There was a woman, for example, who felt that if her friend did not give her a birthday card, her friend did not care about her. That is because if the situation were reversed, and she did not give her friend a card, it would mean she did not care about her friend. In other words, she assumed a certain meaning based on her view of the world, and she assumed her friend would mean the same thing by the same action, or in this case, inaction.
If we are uncertain of our own value, we might be more likely to attribute neglectful or unkind intentions to the people around us. We might assume we are disregarded or criticized because we are internally doing exactly that to ourselves. In this case, we might realize we are inaccurate at times, but it becomes difficult to discern when our perceptions are telling us something real and when we are misunderstanding them. We feel alienated from other people and from ourselves because we cannot be sure of their intentions and we cannot trust our own interpretations.
Our relationships are based on some level of trust in the other person’s inner motivations, and the quality and stability of those connections vary depending on our interpretations of these motivations. An elegant example is when a child is crying and a parent tries to calm the child. Is the parent empathic with the child’s distress, or is the parent impatient and having difficulty tolerating the child’s expressions of unhappiness? In other words, is the parent trying to get a happy child or a quiet child? If the parent is helping the child out of a caregiving motivation, the interaction will be helpful for both of them. If the parent is helping the child out of a self-serving motivation, the connection will be damaged, and the relationship will take on a quality of conflict between the needs of the parent and the needs of the child.
Of course there is a difference between a parent-child relationship and a mutual, equal relationship. Parents are responsible for children’s care. But even in a mutual relationship, if each person is motivated by the desire to preserve and improve the connection between them, interactions will be constructive and developmental. With other agendas, the connection itself becomes neglected, and a disconnect can happen. It is not that there can be no other agendas. It is simply that interactions between people happen under the umbrella of the relationship between them. As long as that works, everything else can be dealt with. When the relationship becomes disconnected, then everything becomes difficult. If we can stop and re-establish the intention for constructive connection, we can use each interaction as a moment of building.