Misinterpretation and miscommunication happens in every relationship. I witness it with people who I counsel, and it happens in my relationship all the time! I find it heartbreaking because people are often hurt by misinterpretations that occur within relationships. While the example that I am about to share with you may not be an indication of hurt, it is a good example of how we can completely misconstrue what happens in our relationships.
I was watching an interview a few weeks ago. Three professionals who work in the field of psychology were discussing recent research about masturbation among married couples. Prior to the show, one of the professionals appearing shared the topic with his wife. A conversation ignited between the two of them. The husband (professional on the show) said that he remembered about 13 years ago he was masturbating in bed when his wife was sleeping, and she got angry with him. He believed that his wife was angry with him for masturbating so since then he has masturbated in secret. It turns out that his wife wasn’t angry with him for masturbating………she was angry that he woke her up when he was masturbating!! So for thirteen years he believed something that was inaccurate. He said that he would never have mentioned it to his wife had he not been going on the show, so the misinterpretation would have lived on forever and he would have continued to, well you know, in secret!
Now, this post is not about your opinion of the husband masturbating while his wife was sleeping. If you focus on that, you will miss the value of this story! The point here is that misunderstanding happens all the time in relationships (even amongst professional psychologists). I work with couples, and I’m stunned when I ask one person what they heard their partner say to them, and it is not even remotely close to the intended message.
With so many misinterpretations and assumptions occurring in our relationships, I believe that a whole second relationship exists, one that we have no clue about! And it is based on assumptions and misunderstandings. I hear statements from couples such as “I didn’t know that was what you thought”, and “I didn’t know you felt that way” and “I thought that you thought…..”.
Communication, or lack of communication, tends to be the number one thing that couples say they need to improve their relationship. But it is more complicated than learning a skill because all of us are complex individuals. No one person is exactly like another, and no relationship is exactly like another. I refuse to refer to myself as a “relationship expert”; I could never be an expert on your relationship. The advantage I have is through having the privilege to work with couples and learn from them, and I learn from my relationship as well. My hope is that you can benefit in some way from what I have learned so far.
Here is a list of ideas that can contribute to identifying and solving communication difficulties. But keep in mind; apply these suggestions to your personal relationship. Advice is never a “one size fits all”, especially for relationships!
1. We tend to attribute miscommunications to “lack of caring” or “not listening” or “being defensive”. I think we draw these conclusions because we’ve been hurt. Hurt caused by our loved one is usually unintentional. Sometimes people avoid conversations because they do not know how to have them. Women may be more willing to have difficult conversations because they have had more practice. It doesn’t mean that they are better at it, just more willing. On the other hand, men tend to struggle because they were not encouraged when they were young to sit around and talk about their feelings. So it isn’t that your partner doesn’t care – sometimes the defensiveness is because a person can feel completely inadequate at having dialog about their relationship. So what do you do about this problem? Be understanding toward your partner and yourself. Meaning, it is hard for the person who feels inadequate, and it is hard for the person trying to have a conversation when they are met with defensiveness. Try to focus on understanding what both of you are going through in your attempts to communicate with one another.
2. Recently I wrote a post on my Facebook page about emotional triggers. If you do not know what these are, you may want to read my post. In short, they are wounds from the past that are re-opened in our current relationships. Think of it as salt (again, unintentional) in an open wound. They contribute to misinterpretations all the time and the best thing we can do is to be aware of them and share them with our partner. Both of you can work toward being gentle with one another with these wounds.
3. Gender differences in communication can lead to misinterpretation. These do exist! By no means is this true for everyone. However, some differences tend to fall into gender differences categories e.g. women tend to say a lot and men tend to say less. Women get very frustrated with men who will not talk but I have learned that men tend to feel that nothing good can come from talking. They feel (although they may not put it in these words) that talking will lead to disconnection, meaning that nothing good can come from talking. In a sense, they want to maintain the connection! Who would have thought that was the case? Not me! In the past, I thought that my husband did not want to talk because he was simply avoiding. And while the avoiding may be true, it is not always true for negative reasons. It can be true for positive reasons, which is to maintain the connection. What can you do? Talk about gender differences with your partner, the more you know and understand, the easier it will be to work with them.
4. Fear of hurting your partner. I hear this all the time. People don’t want to share their concerns or complaints with their partner because they don’t want to hurt them. I understand, nothing feels worse than knowing you’ve hurt your partner. I can only say that not talking may be even more hurtful to your partner. The hurt that may occur by talking may be short term while the hurt by not talking may be long term. If you don’t talk, resentment builds and then difficulties become more challenging. We can learn from our hurt and it may even encourage growth in your relationship. My suggestion, be gentle. All of us are fragile.
5. Fear that a conversation will lead to disconnection. Sadly, there are times when a conversation will lead to disconnection. I wish that were not the case. I know that when my husband and I are in a good place the last thing I want to do is bring up a topic that I worry will not go well. That being said, it is better to bring up a topic when you are in a good place as there is a better chance that the topic of concern can be communicated with compassion. When you bring up a topic of concern during an argument, it is usually delivered (and received) poorly.
6. Fear we will make our partner angry. Worry that our partner will get angry is often a concern. But as long as there is not abuse, anger is okay in a relationship, actually it is inevitable. However, there is something to remember, “Anger is always the second emotion that we feel”. There is always something that we feel first that we tend to not be aware of or choose to ignore. Anger is easy to feel whereas hurt, rejection, betrayal and a hundred other emotions are harder to feel than anger. So if your partner becomes angry, try to find out what it is that they felt first and work with that emotion.
7. We communicate with accusations rather than stating what we feel. This is a big one! Here is an example: One might say: I feel like you don’t love me! This is an accusation that your partner does not love you. The only response is to defend the accusation. It is better to say: “I feel unloved”. The conversation then needs to progress to discussing what it is that makes you feel loved. Accusations will always end in arguments and disconnection. Try to frame your words to describe what it is that you feel.
8. We don’t say what we need, and we hope or expect our partner to read our mind! Oh boy!! This happens all the time. We tend to think that if our partner loved us than they would know what we need. This is not true!! You are the only one who knows what you need. Share it with your partner and then negotiate from there because your partner needs to have a say in what needs they can meet for you.
9. We ignore issues, sweep them under the carpet & hope that they will go away or resolve themselves. There are so many times that people come into therapy and share what it is that upsets them about their partner. I always ask the question: “Have you shared this with your partner”? Nine times out of ten, the answer is “no” and for all the reasons that I have previously stated. So learn and then try to share your concerns with your partner.
10. We do not communicate with validation and empathy. This is big and at the same time, hard to do! We have to learn how to validate one another. Validation is a challenging skill to learn and yet I am passionate about learning how to validate one another. You need it, and your partner needs it. Empathy is equally important and healing in our relationships. Men tend to struggle with empathy, but it is because they do not receive much empathy while growing up. The only way to learn empathy is to be on the receiving end of it. Most men that I work with want to learn how to be empathetic, especially when they understand the value of it in their relationship. Women may know how to be empathetic, but that doesn’t mean they always give it to their partner, especially when they feel like they don’t get it in return. Talk with one another about the value of empathy but have the conversation with empathy and not accusations!
So here is the takeaway: Try to give your partner the space to say what they mean. We tend to attach ourselves to the belief that we know what they are saying to us. Also, when you do have conversations, revisit them later. Find out what the other person took away from the conversation. I know that all of this is hard and sometimes painful work. It is my hope to make it a little less challenging for you and your relationship.Share