A Surprising Cause of Conflict in Relationships — and an Easy Remedy
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 — an unfounded presumption of purposeful or negative intent. 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 be on the same team, de-escalate, 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 in 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: