We’re shadow boxing whenever we’re making assumptions about what the other person feels, thinks, believes and how he’ll behave..It’s about our expectations – and the perceived likelihood of them (not) being met. Exacerbating this, we behave as if our beliefs about the other are true, and then react to the ‘effigy’ we’ve created rather than to the person himself.

The bottom line is that we never react to a person or behavior itself; we react to our perceptions of them. So although we don’t always have control over events or people, we certainly have control over modifying our perceptions.

The following are examples of people in situations in which they haven’t yet modified their perceptions – and keep shadow boxing instead. It’s exhausting.

-Jeff is sure his manager, Mark, is going to give the new important client account to his colleague and, so whenever he’s around Mark during this decision period, he behaves in a sullen, annoyed way.

-Allen asks his wife if they can stop by his office to pick up some papers on their way to a party. She says “fine”; but he’s got it in his head that she’ll be annoyed later, so he tells her he’ll just go there the next day. That night he picks a fight with her for ‘not having wanted to stop at the office…’

-Netta, prone to feeling pushed out of people’s lives, knows that her girlfriend, Antonia, is leaving on a business trip shortly. She wants to spend time with Antonia before she goes, but the upcoming trip requires that Antonia stay late at work most evenings. So Netta asks if Antonia will be home early on Wednesday night, because if not, she’ll go see a friend. Antonia suggests she see the friend, as she’ll likely get in late. But it turns out that Antonia comes home earlier than Netta, and instead of being glad to see her, Netta is annoyed, saying “why do you tell me to go out when you might get home early?”

-Sylvia has turned off sexually (as well as in other ways) to Owen. She complains“why bother having sex; he’s just going to touch me where he wants… or be in the positions he likes; he never listens to what I say I prefer. All he cares about is himself”

-Jill vents about guys never liking her because they pull back once she ‘shows interest’. And she ticks off all of the guys with whom it’s happened; she’s ready to be blown off the moment she gets close.. Yet, listening to her descriptions, we hear that she spars with guys as soon as she meets them… but at the same times starts becoming clingy and looking for constant approval (i.e., she pushes them away and simultaneously tries to get them to take care of her; hardly a formula for having someone become – or stay – attracted to her). So when they don’t text or call, she shadow boxes by ruminating on how they’ll leave her – as opposed to looking at how she may be creating an untenable relationship environment in the first place.

-Allison is convinced that her husband will come home and avoid taking care of the baby – with whom she’s been all day –  and she’s frustrated and feels “put upon”. So when she speaks with him by phone in the afternoon, she’s already gruff and disgruntled, ‘testing’ him to see whether he’s really planning to come home to ‘relieve’ her. Yet the very attitude of needing to be ‘relieved’ from her duties vs. getting to spend time together is off-putting in itself. She treats him as if he’s only a necessary aide rather than someone she misses and wants to spend time with.

Perhaps you’re wondering: “Well, yeah, but sometimes the other person is doing things that make us defensive and vigilant. And that’s quite accurate; they are sometimes pushing our buttons (as we’re pushing theirs)… and mostly it’s done unwittingly, because, in general, neither of us is  trying to hurt the other. But we have a choice as to whether we simply let the buttons be pushed and then get reactive (and move into our corner of the ring)…or we decide to respond neutrally instead to see whether we can alter the trajectory of how the issue is going to go down.

Take Sylvia’s case as an example. It’s not even necessary to know a great deal about their respective backgrounds and what drove them originally to react as they have (as one would in counseling). In fact, these issues can often be addressed on a one-off basis, teaching the partners how to try it differently. – and to undo the harmful shadow boxing that just exacerbates the problem.

One alternative for Sylvia might be to wait for a neutral moment – other than when they’re having sex – to ask Owen why, even though she’s told him what she likes, he seems to avoid acting on some of her desires; whether it’s how he touches her or positions he chooses, etc. And it’s imperative that she let him know that even though she’s tended to get angry with him in the past when addressing these things, she understands that she’s really mostly felt insecure or hurt and so, this time, wants to approach him from that perspective as opposed to a critical one. And, bottom line, what she truly wants is to be sexual with him – and wants to hear all the things he’d like as well. By opening things up in this way, she enables an opportunity to talk about the issues not as ‘contenders’ or rivals, but as real partners who want a good, robust sex life. Of course, how this proceeds will then depend a great deal on whether Owen can  move into talking about these things as well. Interestingly, people too often forget that talking about sex, even about sexual problems, can be pretty sexual itself.

Shadow boxing is a kind of pre-emptive strike which, by definition, moves the pair into an aggressive stance – at the very moment when the only process that can save them is a mutual problem-solving approach.

More of how the above examples can be dealt with in later posts. See, as well, “Responding Vs. Reacting”

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