A Surprising Cause of Conflicts in Relationships (and Easy Remedy)
Dr. Lynn Margolies
Disclaimer: The characters in these examples are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas.
A common but often undetected source of conflict in relationships is harboring an inaccurate belief about your partner’s (or teenager’s) intentions. Our perception of why the other person did or didn’t do something, and what we believe that means - is often the true culprit behind persistent hurt, anger, and/or frustration - not just the behavior itself. These misinterpretations tend to have a negative bias, assume the worst, and personalize - presuming purposeful or negative intent that is unfounded. Our assumptions about others, though seamlessly taken as the truth, are often derived from our own past experiences, psychological makeup, and common perceptual biases - not from an accurate assessment of the other person.
The ensuing cycle of misunderstanding and disconnection can be difficult to resolve because our belief about the other person’s intent is often implicit, not addressed, or not matched up against their actual intent. This chain of events leads to frustrating stalemates and resentment, with both people feeling misunderstood. The good news is that we can stop this cycle by opening up the opportunity for mistaken assumptions to come to light and be corrected by becoming aware of our invisible biases and more curious about the other person. Doing so makes it easier to be on the same team, deescalate, and settle the issue.
Though Dave’s wife Sarah originally said she didn’t want to drive, during the road trip she then expressed wanting to do some driving. Dave was glad to let her take over but kept asking her repeatedly whether she was sure. Sarah found this annoying, but the conflict escalated because she interpreted Dave’s repetitive questioning to mean that he was trying to control her because he really wanted to drive. As the story unfolded in therapy, it turned out that Dave was actually worried about whether Sarah really wanted to drive. Then, in his typical anxious, doubting, obsessional way, he repeatedly asked her the same question - rather than tell her what he was worried about and check out with her whether there was any basis for his concern. Sarah, who grew up with a controlling dad, was hypervigilant to feeling controlled. Stuck in her own feeling, she missed the actual issue which wasn’t that Dave was controlling but that he tended to be overly accommodating and worried about her feelings.
Dave’s anxious personality style sometimes manifested in repetitiveness, obsessive doubting, and rigidity. Once Sarah understood this about him, she no longer took it personally or became triggered to anger - though some of these behaviors were still annoying. She came to recognize the signs of Dave being caught in an anxiety loop - and discovered that making eye contact, saying his name, and touching his hand made him come to more quickly - improving the situation for both.
As seen in this example, obsessional behavior and inflexibility associated with anxiety can be mistaken for being controlling, narcissistic or oppositional. The same behavior, when understood as anxiety rather than a manipulative character trait becomes simply annoying rather than oppressive and has more hopeful implications for the relationship. Correctly identifying what is happening in situations like these helps people get unstuck and opens the door to hope and solutions. Here, Sarah and Dave learned to anticipate predictably difficult situations, and be prepared with a plan to better manage them.
What makes us come to the wrong conclusions?
Faulty conclusions result from hidden beliefs, mindsets, and omissions in our thinking that mislead us, such as:
Assuming everyone thinks exactly like you. The problem here involves equating yourself with the other person and extrapolating what would be true if you were in that situation - as if there were no differences in people’s capacities and subjective experience.
Jim was angry when he came home and found dishes in the sink again. Keeping the house in order came easily and naturally to him when he was in charge of the household. He interpreted Sonya’s inaction as not caring about him and even hostile. Either that, or she was lazy. Neither were true. Sonya, a competent mom, struggled with ADHD and often felt overwhelmed by household chores - sometimes avoiding them.
Lack of productivity and disorganization, characteristic of ADHD/executive function issues, is often not recognized as a capacity limitation and is instead confused with laziness as in this example - fueling a sense of injustice and resentment. Once Jim understood that Sonya was not lazy, and had different strengths and weaknesses than he did, he let go of his grudge - enabling him to have more realistic expectations. This did not change his obsessional need for the house to be neat so he could de-stress and calm himself, but allowed him to be more flexible in solving the problem. Jim decided to make himself feel better when he came home by washing the few dishes left in the sink - pulling back from getting frustrated with Sonya or stewing in anger.
Unfortunately, Sonya in turn fell into a similar trap as Jim had before. She took Jim washing the dishes as a dig and message to her that she was slacking - failing to recognize that the same outward behavior can be motivated by different intentions. Feeling criticized, and having experienced Jim as critical in the past, Sonya was needlessly offended and became accusatory. This caused Jim to feel unappreciated and demoralized, perpetuating the cycle of disconnection between them.
Recognizing the familiar impasse, Sonya was ultimately able to create the space to understand Jim’s feelings and believe him, which helped them both recover and allowed room for change.
Personalizing and confusing your own feeling with the other person’s intent. Just because someone evoked a feeling in you doesn’t mean that was their intention, or that they don’t care about your feelings. This is a common leap - especially when it comes to feeling rejected - which makes sense since it is hard wired in us to fear rejection even more than maltreatment.
Robert was preoccupied with a work project and acted distracted and emotionally distant. This felt rejecting and threatening to Laura because she took it to mean that he was losing interest in her or might be having an affair. In response to feeling rejected, Laura gave Robert a conspicuous cold shoulder, causing him to feel unloved and be defensive, creating a cycle of disconnect between them.
There are many psychological states and needs that create emotional or actual distance - drawing people inward or consuming their resources. In this example, when Robert was preoccupied, Laura took it personally - presuming without question that this meant that Robert was rejecting her. When perceived rejection provokes the person who feels rejected to withdraw or react in kind, as happened here, a self-fulfilling chain reaction ensues, creating the rejection that is feared.
As Robert took responsibility for improving the atmosphere at home, he worked on being more aware of how his absorption made Laura feel, rather than focused on defending himself. He tried to let her know when he was distracted by work, reassure her that he loved her, and find ways to let her help him at these times.
“Pathological certainty.” The problem here is a conspicuous absence of healthy curiosity and assuming you’re right about the other person. Paradoxically, such rigid certainty is a sign that you are likely wrong because it shows a lack of interest in and/or lack of awareness of the other person’s mindset, along with a fixed view of them.
Though no one likes to be wrong, it is heartening to recognize when the intensity of our reactions is caused by a misperception, rather than think that our dreaded belief about the other person is true. Identifying our perceptual biases and faulty beliefs, as well as aiming to default to more tolerant, non-blaming assumptions, will prevent us boxing people into fixed traits, motives, or stereotypes as well as help people grow.
Healthy doubt about our assumptions, asking more questions, and being open to revising our perspective with new information makes it more likely that we will understand our loved ones clearly and be more effective. Accurately diagnosing what’s really happening in difficult situations is essential in order to use good judgment, be experienced as an ally, and potentially have a positive impact.