In “Save Your Marriage (part 6)“, I described a common communication problem couples have (the story about the jack). Today, I will outline 10 ways you can get things wrong in any relationship. I hope you will be able to recognize yourself in some of them and find ways to work on that miscommunication. Remember, it is just miscommunication and there is no need to give up something as special as your marriage because of something that can be fixed so easily.
Many arguments start from a simple misunderstanding of the meaning of what one or the other has said. Many times, one party will give a meaning to something the other one has said that was actually not the intended meaning at all. So if you think about it, if it is you who attaches the wrong meaning to your partner’s words or actions, then when you argue, in a sense, you argue with yourself.
A study of expert communicators has found that in any given interaction, we have a tendency to see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear. The study has found that in any communication, we:
We change the information we receive subconsciously by the interplay of our beliefs, values and rules that we already have in our heads. Thus our emotions can alter the interpretation of any message sent our way. If we are afraid of something, we tend to think the messenger was aggressive. If we feel confused, we tend to think the messenger was unclear with his or her message. If some information is missing, the way we fill in the gaps can be very subtle but may have a very strong impact.
Example: Suppose you say to your partner, “We need to talk”. Your Partner may ”hear” as subtext, “I am unhappy about something and I want to criticize you”. Alternatively, he or she may be confident in your relationship and hear, “I love you and I have a great surprise that I need to discuss with you”.
We convey information about a particular experience in one of two ways:
- Describing exactly what we see, hear or feel. This is when we state exactly what the facts are – “You came home after dinner” or “You talked on the phone for 21 minutes”.
- Describing our reaction, interpretation or opinion about what we see, hear or feel. This is when we have already added our emotions, beliefs and values to the interpretation – “You do not respect me” or “You only care about your mom”.
Obviously, both ways are valuable at certain times, but the second is far more risky than the first, and, if you are not careful, may be a recipe for getting things wrong in your relationship.
For a marriage to work, the couple needs to be able to distinguish between what actually happened and their interpretation of it. When things get hot and nasty, it is usually a dispute about interpretations rather than fact.
Mistaking interpretations for facts is one of the most common communication errors in any marriage. No matter how much information we gather, it is only human to interpret them based on our experiences in life, and, because we have all had different experiences, we often then misinterpret.
There is not much we can do to change our past experiences, so the best we can do is to identify and then change the existing negative emotions and beliefs that we may have about the relationship and start to notice when we communicate in a way in which only the facts are stated without being emotionally charged. This will avoid interpretational arguments that are ultimately futile.
Rule of Thumb: If you are upset with something in your relationship, it is probably a misinterpretation!
The first thing you can try to do is start to take more notice and focus your discussion on facts only. Usually, you will find that the conversation is not as nasty and upsetting as other times when you (mis)interpret what your partner’s intentions are.
10 ways to get things wrong
The first thing we do with the facts is interpret them. This is a natural reaction to any message that is directed towards us. We try to answer the questions, “What does this mean?” and “What does this mean for me?” Here are some distortions we often apply:
- Black and white thinking – when you recognize only the extremes. For example: “If it’s not perfect, this relationship is not worth it” or “This is my one and only chance to work on our relationship”.
- Filtering – when you ignore certain kinds of input. For example: “You never help me around the house”, “There is no hope for our marriage” or “If I just ignore this, it’ll go away”.
- Over-generalizing – when you change the scope of a statement so that rather than applying just to that specific situation, you imagine that it applies to you as a whole person or to an entire population or all the time. For example: “I did not remember her birthday. I’m such a bad husband” or “She did not make dinner on time. She can’t do anything right”.
- Mind reading – when you interpret based on what you think others are thinking. For example: “She ignored me on purpose” or “He is angry with me”.
- Fortune telling – when you include notions about the future in your interpretation. For example: “He’s going to be late again”, or, “I’m going to have a nervous breakdown”.
- Emotional reasoning – when you explain things by what you feel. For example: “I’m angry, so you must have done something to make me upset” or “I wouldn’t be upset if there wasn’t something to be upset about”.
- Personalizing – when you interpret something as being directed at you or somebody else in particular. For example: “I think he’s mad because of me”, “He lost his job because of me”, “What did I do?” or “Was it something I said?”
- Awfulizing – (I love this one) when you perceive something as a threat to your wellbeing (discomfort anxiety) or to your self-image (ego anxiety) and declare that “it’s awful” and you “can’t stand it”. For example: “You say I’m not fair. That’s awful! What am I going to do now?” or “What are the neighbors going to say?”
- Demanding – when you present desires as needs. This can be moralizing about how people “should” or “shouldn’t” behave or believing that circumstances “have to” or “must” be a certain way. For example: “Every wife should prepare food for her husband” or “Every husband should be able to build a shelf in the house”.
- Labeling – when you label an entire person as a “bitch”, “bastard” or some other all-encompassing label, instead of dealing with their actions. For example: “You told me that we were going to meet at 12:00. Liar!” or “You promised to fix the door in the garage and you didn’t. You’re just lazy”.
Notice that all the above interpretations can turn any loving relationship into a nightmare if used in a negative way. At the same time, many of the above filters can enhance a relationship when used in a positive way. For example: “You’ve cleared the room. You’re awesome!” (labeling), “We are going to have a wonderful time together” (fortune telling), “He loves me” (mind reading), “You always help me” (filtering) or “I bought her a present. I’m a wonderful husband” (over-generalizing).
Your relationship with your partner is very important and negative interpretations can lead to marriage breakdown, so in a conflict, recognize them in your communication and learn to bring yourself back to the facts only. In positive situations, on the other hand, use your imagination and have a ball saying outrageously good things to your partner.
This post is part of the series Save Your Marriage:
- Self-Regulation in Your Marriage
- How to Save Yourself from Divorce
- Marriage and Divorce Statistics
- The Marriage Institution
- Marriage is the Foundation of Families
- The Unpleasant Side of Divorce
- How to Get Things Wrong in a Marriage
- Marriage and Self Talk
- More About Self Talk
- Facts vs. Meaning in Marriage
- All Men Are… All Women Are…
- When Two Do Not Become One
- Marriage and Money
- Be Your Partner’s Best Friend
- Relationship Between Two Onions
- The Greatest Gift: Staying Married
- Marriage of Singles
- The "Right" Trap
- The Intention Trap
- Best Marriage Quotes
- 10 Rules for Civilized Dialogue
- 10 Tips for Re-Building Trust
- The King and His Servants
- The Nitpicker
- Expressing Feelings in a Marriage
- Don’t Be On Guard
- Don’t Clam Up
- Have Good Sex to Save Your Marriage
- Trust (or The Boy Who Cried Wolf)
- Emergency Relationship Coaching Essentials
- Save Your Marriage with Better Time Management
- Choice Theory Can Save Your Marriage