When you more fully understand how your mate ticks, you build a context of that person. This understanding allows you to use that context during those times when you feel hurt, misjudged, or unheard (which is inevitable in relationships). When you understand how your mate thinks and feels in various experiences you can apply this context to other situations and more accurately interpret what your mate really means. This can help prevent those misunderstood feelings or “disconnections” from occurring.
For example, as a newlywed, I often felt my husband would ignore me. One time I was in the kitchen, just around the corner from his home office. I asked him a question but received no response. I let the first few times pass, but by the fourth time I felt hurt and annoyed at being ignored. When I finally approached him in his office and asked him why he was ignoring me, he had a very surprised and startled look on his face. This was because he truly had not heard me! I know this, not just because he told me in that moment, but also he told me in the past about his uncanny ability to completely shut other things out when he needed to concentrate. He learned this skill in grad school which became a survival mechanism for him. I had also learned over time that he doesn’t lie. When I put these two pieces of information together, it formed a context of how he operates. That context told me to believe him when he said he truly had not heard me.
I find that couples in therapy misunderstand their partner’s allegedly hurtful intentions about 85% of the time. The “disconnect” usually results from misunderstanding the context of what their mate said. Most often they don’t recognize this misunderstanding when it occurs, and presume that their mate deliberately wants to push them away or emotionally hurt them.
That is why it is so important to build a context of how your mate thinks, feels, interprets and generally operates. And for you to help your mate build a context of you. How do we build this so called context? By talking, asking questions, expressing how you feel about things, especially as they occur in the moment. You need to learn how you protect yourself from hurt or shame, and how your mate does this as well. Why do you each feel the way you do in various situations? Are there any themes that come up in how things are misinterpreted? These themes play out again and again until they are resolved. And there is no way to resolve them without talking them out with each other.
In providing couples therapy, I most always find that beneath the harsh words is always some hurt and fear – of abandonment, or feeling “less than” others, or some other feeling or fear carried deep inside. Talking about this allows each person to feel safer in sharing their feelings in a way their mate can better hear and understand.
So the next time you feel emotionally attacked by your mate, ask him/her how they are feeling in that moment, and why they feel that way. Try to stay away from right or wrong, good or bad, and better or worse than. We already know that these accusations never work effectively in conversations. Also try to share how you feel without blaming your mate. How we feel is how we feel. When we stay away from blaming it is easier for the other person to hear us.
Another important piece in having productive conversations that build a context of each other: Just because someone continues to assume an attack when you are not actually attacking them, doesn’t mean they didn’t really hear you. Try to avoid arguing your position. Say what you feel and let it rest. The other person cannot “unhear” what was said. They may act as if they did not understand or accept what you said, but they cannot “unhear” what you said. Often people need time to digest the information without feeling they need to defend themselves. So they will continue to hear the conversation after it has ended, and you are no longer present. This works in reverse as well.
Main Points to Remember:
- When you build a context of how each of you operates, you will better understand each other, which leads to feeling more compassion for one another. We are not perfect!
- Focus on trying to hear the feelings behind the words: does the person feel fear or shame for example?
- How we feel is how we feel. Regardless of what the other person says, we stand in our own truth when it comes to feelings.
- Try to explain why you feel the way you do without blaming the other. You want to “keep the door open” so the other person continues to try to fully hear you.
- Use “I” statements such as: “I feel hurt when you don’t call me back.” “I feel that you don’t care about me.” Over time the other person will hopefully hear the hurt rather than feel blamed.
- Remember, just because the other person became defensive doesn’t mean he/she didn’t really hear what you were saying. We can’t unhear what we hear!