Conflict is one of the most challenging aspects of a relationship. I have witnessed couples struggle to maintain a strong connection when misunderstandings erupt in their relationship. Unresolved misunderstandings can erode the connection that a loving couple have shared with one another. Accusations of “not caring” are often made during conflict which result in a disconnection with one another.
I hear many say “If you only cared about me you would… (prioritize me, understand me, do this for me).” And one of the statements I hear most often is:
“I feel like you don’t care”
However, and it’s a big however, I have never heard one partner say about the other, even during conflict in couples counseling, “I don’t care about you”. It is often the opposite – one feels terribly misunderstood in their caring for the other.
Caring and misunderstandings are complex – let’s try to break it down with this one example.
My client expresses to her husband “I came to you to share my anxiety that I go through at work. I was very upset and you turned away from me.”
“I tried to listen but you were angry and frustrated!” he said in a tone of frustration.
“Yes, that’s true but I really thought that you would understand what I was going through because you struggle with anxiety too! And you know what I go through at work!” she stressed to him in her explanation.
“I do understand anxiety but you were angry and frustrated,” he said with escalating frustration.
“What does that have to do with anything!” she went on to say, “I came to you because I knew that you would understand, but you don’t care!”
(There it is – the conclusion of “not caring”, which is understandable and both might feel this way due to misunderstanding.)
I interjected at this point – “Can I intervene here?”
Both said in extreme frustration “Yes, please!”
I asked the husband, “When your wife is angry and frustrated – what do you feel?”
His response? “Scared!” (His wife looks on with a bit of surprise) “I want to help her but she’s so angry.”
Me: “What are you frightened will happen when your wife is angry and frustrated?”
He responded as if it was obvious to everyone, “I will say the wrong thing and then she will be angry with me!” He continued, “And then it will go on for days!”
Me: “So in a sense you want to help, but you are worried that when she is angry that only something bad can come of it?”
“Absolutely,” he says as if this is, again, obvious.
I ask his wife, “When you approach your husband – are you seeking connection with him in knowing that he will understand due to his challenges with anxiety?”
“Yes,” she says, as if this is obvious too!
Me: “So both of you are, in a sense, trying to maintain connection. (To the wife) You are trying to connect with your husband by discussing something that you know he will understand and (to the husband) you are trying to maintain connection by disengaging so that an argument does not continue for days?”
“Yes!” both exclaim, and yet it is clear at this point in our session that each of them does not see that the other is trying to maintain connection as well. They are hurt, feeling misunderstood and can only see their own attempt at getting to connection.
I ask the wife, “When your husband turns away from you, what do you feel?”
“Abandoned,” she expresses with hurt and anger.
Me to the husband: “And when your wife is angry what do you feel?”
“Unsafe,” he says, with a bit of discomfort at this acknowledgement.
(Now we are getting to the heart of their hurt.)
I ask the husband why he feels unsafe.
“Because I’m afraid that I will say the wrong thing and she’ll get angry. I want to help but I don’t always know the right thing to say. I screw up!”
We talk about feeling unsafe. We talk about the shame that gets triggered when he wants to help but doesn’t know the right thing to say. Shame is a painful trigger for him.
(I notice his wife soften a bit during this exchange.)
I ask the wife “Why do you feel abandoned?”
“Because it’s hard for me to ask for help. It’s hard to go to anyone when I am upset. He is the one person that I trust most in the world and when he withdraws from me – I feel abandoned.”
(Her husband is a bit surprised because it is not his intention to abandon her – he is withdrawing because he is at a loss about how to help and he doesn’t want to say the wrong thing. For his own emotional safety, he is trying to avoid the shame of getting it wrong and saying the wrong thing.)
He interjects, “I don’t mean to abandon you, I want to help you … but you are so angry.”
“I have a right to be angry!” she expresses.
“Yes, but I fear that your anger will be directed at me! I screw up and don’t always say the right thing.”
“I know – you’re right. I do sometimes get angry when you say the wrong thing. I need to work on that.” (She struggles with shame too – so she understands and is trying not to trigger his shame.)
I ask her if she could give him wiggle room to screw up and say the wrong thing. She smiles and nods yes.
Her husband quickly jumps in, “I could respond to you easier if you were not angry, if you showed me your vulnerability. When you have approached me in the past with vulnerability rather than anger – I always respond to you.”
She agrees but says, “You know how hard that is for me. I have been hurt as a child so many times when I was vulnerable.”
He softens too, “I know, I know it’s hard for you.”
I ask him if he can give her wiggle room to be angry and frustrated when she approaches him. I share with him that it is not wrong to be angry and frustrated but she will work on not directing it at him when he says something that is not helpful to her. He said he would try, especially now that he understands at a deeper level her fears and her true intentions of trying to connect with him.
This is one small example of the complexities of misunderstandings and how we can draw the wrong conclusion that our partner does not care about us. It is also clear that both partners care deeply toward one another and yet it is also easy to understand how the wrong conclusion of one not caring for the other can be drawn.
The take away from this example is to try (I know it’s not easy) to get to the heart of one another’s hurt and pain, and hold off on drawing the conclusion that our partner does not care. All of us want our true intentions to be seen and all of us seek to be understood by our partner. However, we must work hard to attempt to understand our partner as well.
Start by accepting there may be another reason your partner is not responding in the way you would like or expect, rather than quickly jumping to the conclusion they don’t care. If you can do this, it is a good start to trying to get to the heart of understanding one another. Try to put aside assumptions, conclusions and accusations. In the attempt to clear up misunderstandings, begin a conversation with openness, and curiosity, while remembering that each of you do care about one another. Most of us are trying to avoid being hurt and in doing so we misunderstand each other’s true intention.
One final thing – as you learned from the example that I shared with you – there is always something deeper underlying these types of misunderstandings. Creating a safe space for each of you will help you get to the heart of your hurt and will create an opportunity for clearing up misunderstandings. This is the work of a relationship that will improve your relationship and create a loving connection with one another.
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Details of any stories told in my blogs have been changed to protect the identity of people that I work with in therapy.
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