A paradigm is a model, a way of seeing the world. It helps us process information without being overloaded. Paradigms act like filters, and when information comes toward us that challenge our view of the world, we tend to ignore it or to reinterpret it. Paradigms are neither good nor bad, they simply are. People cannot exist without them. The challenge of each person is to examine when a personal paradigm is failing and to be willing to change it. Unfortunately, paradigms are most easily seen in hindsight, and not in the moment. We fail to realize that we all live in a paradigm. We all miss facts that would challenge our view of the world. We all make decisions based on facts that may or may not be complete. An individual’s paradigm is neither right nor wrong. It is, however, incomplete. We all have individual paradigms. They are the result of our life experiences, gender, age, education, and multitude of other variables. Those paradigms are valid, but they are NOT reliable. Paradigms are valid because they make sense to us. We do not see the inconsistencies from inside the paradigm. It looks logical and all holds together. But externally, no paradigm is reliable. It cannot be applied to everyone else. In Psych 101, the idea of Johari’s Window tells us we all have visible and hidden parts. These parts are often even invisible from us. There are parts that are visible and known to us and to others. There are other parts that are visible to others, but not to us. There are parts that are visible to us, but not to others. And finally, there are areas that are hidden, not only from others, but also from us.
Paradigms have this element to them. Our paradigms are somewhat known to us, and somewhat known to others. But never is the entire paradigm known to both others and us. There are hidden, unknown parts. As people get to know us, they begin to see more and more of how we see the world. It is there that another can see the inconsistencies in a paradigm. But we must acknowledge there are those areas that remain hidden to all, and will always be hidden. That is the nature of paradigms. They operate in the background, a “software operating system” that limits what we recognize and how we interpret. It has its place. But there are also weaknesses.
The problem with paradigms is not that we have one, it’s that we forget that we have one. We begin to believe that the way we see the world is the right one, instead of one way. It happens throughout life, but it is particularly painful in the context of a relationship. Most couples begin to assume they see things alike. When it becomes clear this is not the case, the couple begins to try to get each other “back on track,” back to seeing things alike. This is rarely successful, since neither saw things identically in the first place. Sure, couples often see many things very similarly; this compounds the problem. The more things are seen the same, the easier it is to assume you are seeing things just alike.
When a couple is dealing with the paradigms of each other, it may be helpful to have some model of understanding. I caution that this is only a model and not meant to be definitive. It is limited. People have three different layers to their paradigm. The top layer consist of our daily stuff – movies we like, books we read, food we eat. It is really a reflection of our preferences. In the overall scheme of life, it gives the flavors of living. However, in the overall scheme of a relationship, this may be less important. Interestingly, it is here that a couple first discovers their differences. They end up not liking the same movies, books etc. However, a relationship with some depth will look beyond this. Each will seek to benefit and learn from the other’s interests.
Couples can, if they desire, quickly move beyond this layer. They may decide to do things separately, or compromise on a movie or restaurant. This level is the easiest to navigate. The next layer down comprises our worldview. It includes how e think about money, what we do with our time, and how we deal with problems. This is the area that often “trips” a couple. We come to believe that these areas must be in concert for a relationship to work. This is not the case. There is more than enough room for differences in perception and worldview in a relationship. But the differences cannot be ignored. Room must be made for them.
The bottom layer of a person’s paradigm is the most crucial. It holds one’s beliefs, standards, and values. Standards are what we expect of ourselves; they are what we “live up to.” This is the bedrock of existence. We may be able to compromise on the top and middle layer, but the bottom layer creates the foundation for living.
When this bottom area is not very similar for a couple, problems will emerge. For example, if one of the couple expects honesty and integrity, and the other does not value this, problems will emerge. The two will take these beliefs into their communication, which will have a large effect on the outcome of that communication.W
Fortunately, people typically find their mates to have very similar points of agreement in this third layer. When couples learn to navigate the paradigm issues, couples often find themselves on their way to a successful relationship.
Our paradigms become like glasses we forget we are wearing. We think we see clearly, but we are always looking through lenses that alter reality from how others see it. And everyone is wearing a pair of glasses! But most have forgotten.
Now we need to learn how to escape the paradigm trap. Acknowledging that your own paradigm is not the correct paradigm, but merely a paradigm is key. Once that happens, you become free to see that someone else’s (particularly a spouse’s) is not the incorrect paradigm, but merely another paradigm. Ah! The freedom of discovery!
When I realized we all see the world from a different perspective, I realized something even more powerful: We all do the best we can, where we are! That does not mean we are all operating at our optimum capacity. Instead, it means that at this place in time, given the current circumstances, we are doing the best we can. Sure, we all could do something more, something different. But that would be by shifting our understanding…our paradigm. If that shift happens for you, what you may discover is a great deal more compassion. You may give yourself more room, and others more room, to fall short and try again. Why? Because this perspective allows us to relax our judgmental side, and to accept people and ourselves where we are.