Family Holiday Survival Guide

The New Marriage - Part Four of Four 

By Dr. Linda Miles

When we are children we do not yet have an identity. We learn about who we are through the mirroring that we get from our parents. It is called mirroring to describe the ability of good parents to gently hold up an imaginary mirror in front of the child until they learn to see themselves clearly without harsh judgments. If we do not get enough realistic mirroring during the years we live with them, we remain pretty clueless about who we really are.

I am always so pleased to see parents who appropriately mirror their children. By providing them feedback about their behavior without shame or blame, parents help children grow up with a realistic self-image and the ability to operate from a strong sense of self.

In my children’s book, Amanda Salamander, written with Martin Terrell, we tell the story of a beautiful young salamander who changes herself into the color of whomever she is with so that they will like her. This is quite characteristic of what we learn to do when we do not have a good picture of who we are. In the story, Amanda Salamander turns into the color of her husband so that he will like her. This brings many problems into their marriage, because she is not being true to herself.

We wrote Amanda Salamander to advise children of the perils of entering a relationship by pretending to be someone else. When we read this story to our five-year-old granddaughter, she already understood what we were talking about. We asked her what the lesson was in this story and she responded, “You should stay your same color when you get married.” However, we first need to know what our true color is!

An example of a parent doing a good job of mirroring a sense of self to her children without shame and blame occurred one day when we took a picture of a group of neighborhood children. Except for one four-year-old girl we’ll call Lillith, all the children were boys. Lillith wanted to be in the middle of the picture, and when the boys refused, she began to whine. It’s not hard to guess the reaction of young boys to a whining girl. This behavior was obviously not in her best interest.

Lillith’s mother wisely called her over to the side and knelt down to her level. She explained, “Lillith, you know that thing you do that causes you problems? You are doing it right now.” What this woman was doing so naturally was mirroring back behavior that was not in the child’s best interest without sounding overly judgmental. Therefore, she was helping Lillith to begin to look at her own behavior and to self-correct. Consequently, Lillith pushed herself into the middle of the boys and they seemed to respect this behavior and allowed her to get her picture taken. Ultimately, that is not the behavior that we would want to encourage. Lillith, however, is beginning to experiment with something different based on her mother’s mirroring.

Sadly, I have seen countless adults who really do not have a sense of who they are. I was present when one woman realized that when her husband had asked her to marry him, all she had thought about was whether he would want to marry her. She had never even asked herself whether she might want to marry him.

The clinical term for the development of a self is differentiation . Developed by a brilliant family therapist named Murray Bowen, this concept refers to our ability to be close to others and also maintain a sense of self. This is perhaps the most difficult task that we have in our lives.

It requires a great deal of learning and trial and error to begin to figure out who we are. We are not doomed if we do not develop an accurate mirror as children. This can be developed through our relationships as adults.

Copyright 2005 Linda Miles Ph.D

Author, Dr. Linda Miles, is deeply committed to helping individuals and couples achieve rewarding relationships. She is an expert with a doctorate in Counseling Psychology, and has worked in the mental health field for over thirty years. She has been interviewed extensively on radio, TV, and in newspapers and magazines. Find more relationship ideas and relaxation techniques on her web site and in the award-winning book she co-authored, The New Marriage: Transcending the Happily-Ever-After Myth, and Train Your Brain: For Successful Relationships, CD.