When you try to talk with your partner, you may find yourself saying:
We don’t understand each other.
Everything I say is taken the wrong way.
My husband doesn’t understand me emotionally.
I can’t talk to my wife about how I feel.
Sometimes it’s true: we just don’t understand. It happens even in the strongest relationships. If misunderstandings are common between you and someone you love, you may experience some of the worst stress in your life. These tips can help make you feel more understandable to each other again.
Why We Misunderstand So Easily
Love makes it easy to know our loved one at first. We spontaneously notice and understand what matters to him or her. But that doesn’t mean we’ll understand all the time. Communication problems enter every relationship. Working through relationship issues can be some of the hardest work we do. It is also the most important.
Why doesn’t love help us understand each other by default? The problem is the quick, automatic brain.
Perception is error-prone, says Dr. Stan Tatkin, in his TEDx talk. “Communication on a good day is terrible. We’re mostly misunderstanding each other much of the time….” When we feel disconnected, our stress levels skyrocket, and suddenly, hearing each other gets a whole lot harder.
The Negativity Bias is Real
We have an automatic brain that saves time and energy. When we find a familiar situation, our brain automatically loads our latest memories, judgments, and thoughts from experience. This way, we avoid starting from scratch to function in our daily life.
As humans, we place more focus on negative information. Negative events and experiences have greater impact than the same number of positive ones.
This is why the automatic brain often gets in the way when it comes to relationship problems. When couples fight, they often look for negative explanations for their partner’s behavior. They focus on the flaws and shortcomings in each other and the relationship. Believing them without question makes the problem worse. When couples keep arguing and judging, they may be relying too much on these negative reactions.
If we start thinking that our partner is “bad,” “stupid,” or threatening the safety of our relationship, it’s hard to see our partner as a friend. We start seeing our partner as the enemy — when it’s really the pattern we’re stuck in. We forget we might not understand completely what is going on.
Most likely, we haven’t shared our pain in a way that our partner can understand and help with, if he or she only knew.
Our automatic systems keep firing danger signals when something threatens the relationship we rely on to feel safe, secure, and loved. The danger signals take over our conversation. This happens without our even knowing. The way we get stuck leads to a chain reaction relationship experts have discovered. One person speaks from anger, the other person gets defensive, nobody feels heard, and you both start backing away.
Tips for Bringing Up Problems for the First Time
If you are new to opening up with your husband, wife, partner, boyfriend, or girlfriend, the following tips can help.
3 Tips to Prepare Before You Share
- Take time to know what’s really bothering you deep down.
When you’re upset, you probably talk to yourself. You may rant to a friend because you just want somebody to understand. Stop and understand yourself too. Listen to your own inner dialog before talking about your feelings with your partner. If it’s hard to stop trashing your partner, try new phrasing in order to explore your perspective.
For example, if you hear yourself saying this:
- “I’m mad my partner out all day with friends. That’s so selfish and uncaring.”
- “I’m upset my partner stayed out all night with friends. It hurts. It feels like my partner doesn’t care about me.”
Or try this:
- “The problem isn’t so much the time spent with friends or playing video games. It’s feeling like I’m invisible, I don’t matter. I have this awful feeling my partner doesn’t want to be with me.”
- Wait till you’re calm. If you’re so upset that you’re shaking or feeling on edge, take time to let your body calm down. Listen to your body. If the problem is recent, and you’re upset, let your thoughts and feelings settle before trying to talk with your partner. At the very least, take 20 minutes to settle down, which is roughly how long it takes your nervous system to feel calm again. Take your pulse; when it’s at your base heart rate it should be safe to try again.
- Find a good time to talk. Be intentional about choosing a good time. You both need to be rested enough to focus. You want to avoid interruptions — even from kids or pets. Sit so you can look into each other’s eyes — soft, gentle eye contact is naturally soothing.
- Plan a gentle, soft startup “My research shows that if your discussion begins with a harsh startup, it will inevitably end on a negative note,” found relationship expert John Gottman. In fact, a harsh startup is one of six signals Gottman used predict divorce among hundreds of couples he studied. He guessed correctly over 90% of the time. When you approach a conversation as friends, you have much better chances of growing closer instead of apart.
Tips for Putting Feelings Into Words
Now that you’re ready to talk calmly about your anger, how do you word it? Use these tips for help.
- Speak from self-compassion, not blame. Share what’s happened for you, calmly without accusations. Complaining is different from criticizing or blaming your partner for the way things are. A criticism is harsh: “You said you’d call me and you never did. Why did you lie to me?” A more helpful complaint is “We agreed you would call me after dinner. I never heard from you and I waited. It’s really bothering me.”
- Listen to clean anger and avoid dirty anger. Good clean anger can inspire you to discuss things calmly in order to make your relationship better. Dirty anger is hurtful. It includes eye rolling, mocking, dismissing, shaming or put-downs. Hurtful anger focuses on saying insulting or damaging things while expressing your feelings. Clean anger intends to strengthen your relationship. It is never to hurt. Clean anger may sound forceful, but it isn’t scary.
- Listen to your inner voice to help you speak softly and truthfully from the heart.
- Keep it friendly. Keep the discussion civil and openhearted to avoid making your partner feel threatened. Couples who nurture fond regard and kept positive feelings going toward each other tend to have the most satisfying and long-lasting relationships, Gottman
- Show you are listening. This shows you are allowing your partner’s point of view to influence how you think. Considering each other’s viewpoints helps you both feel seen and understood. You don’t have to agree or comply with everything your partner says. But seeking common ground and respecting your partner’s point of view makes your relationship feel good for both of you.
No matter how much we love someone, love doesn’t stay strong automatically. People who enjoy lasting love are those who rebuild love. They don’t always understand each other. But they choose to nurture, to turn toward each other, and build on the positive. They don’t always get it right. But they keep trying until they do.