It’s common to misunderstand our partners, but there are healthy ways to work to resolve misunderstandings.
Picture it: you come home from a long, grueling day at work and go into the kitchen to grab yourself a glass of water. You open the cabinet, but you realize there aren’t any glasses. A quick glance at the sink and the mystery is solved: all the glasses are piled up in the sink and dirty.
What’s the first thought that comes into your mind?
If it were along the lines of “a partner that loves me would have cleaned up before I got home” or “I should have a partner that does the dishes without me having to ask,” you wouldn’t be alone.
You also wouldn’t be alone if you decided to storm upstairs and yell at your partner for letting you down.
But the truth is: our partners generally don’t do things (or in this case, not do things) to hurt or annoy us. And there could be a valid reason why your partner didn’t get to those dishes while you were out. But by reacting before asking them what happened, you’re allowing room for misunderstandings to harm your relationship.
So what do you do to prevent or solve misunderstandings from getting in the way of your relationship? Here are some tips:
Practice active listening
“Most of us listen to defend our viewpoint, but we should really be listening to understand,” explains Odona Ezell-Whiddon, a licensed professional counselor. “When we listen to defend, we often interrupt one another and things escalate. Listening to understand allows a little more space to think about your partner’s viewpoint.”
That’s why active listening can help because it is setting aside your own agenda, thoughts, interpretation, judgments, emotions, and your need to be right. Instead, you focus on trying to understand their perspective and feelings.
“You may still disagree, but your approach to talking about how you disagree becomes more clear and your partner feels more respected,” Ezell-Whiddon adds.
Do a “perception check”
“What we hear our partner saying is often wildly different from what they are actually saying,” explains Marin Rieger, marriage and family therapist and founder of Elm Therapy and Wellness. Instead, “we are hearing something based on our fears, not on our reality.”
For example, if your partner has a fear of abandonment based on their childhood experiences, when you say, “I need some time to be with my friends or on my own,” they might hear that you don’t enjoy being with them — even if that’s not what you meant.
“Because of past wounds, the receiver can ascribe the most negative meanings to the partner’s behaviors,” explains Nancy Landrum, MA, author, and relationship coach. “Then, usually, before checking it out with the partner, the receiver begins a narrative, a story, based on their interpretation.”
“This fiction usually creates a scenario that makes the partner into the villain and the receiver into the victim, sending the argument into the stratosphere of ‘I know what you meant’ and ‘No, I didn’t mean that’ — a dialogue that no one can win.”
So, rather than let that happen, check in with your partner and ask them what happened or why they said something. Sometimes paraphrasing what you hear to them allows them to clarify if you’re misunderstanding.
Believe your partner’s explanation
After you ask your partner why they said or did something, listen and, Landrum says,”believe your partner’s words when they tell you the true meaning behind whatever they said or did. Then drop it.”
Admittedly, this can be difficult, Landrum concedes. You may be tempted to not believe their explanation. But when you don’t believe them, she explains, “you are saying that you know more about the internal workings of their thoughts, feelings, and motivations than they do, and that is impossible.”
You have to make the assumption, she says, “that in a loving relationship, both partners want to hear and tell the truth as the basis for their healthy relationship.”
It’s easy for us to make assumptions about how our partner will or won’t react to something, based on past experiences. For example, you could decide to not talk to your partner about something because you “already know” how they will respond or react.
When doing this, you don’t give your partner the opportunity to surprise you and surpass your expectations. They main respond with more understanding than you are expecting.
“This can build resentment based on something that has not even happened,” says Danielle McGraw, a clinical psychologist in Phoenix, Arizona.
Just like doing a perception check, simply talking with your partner in a kind and compassionate way or asking them questions can help you avoid misunderstandings.
Try not to attack
It’s easy, when we’re frustrated or angry, to launch into an attack on our partner, but this can only deepen misunderstandings because it forces your partner into a defensive position where they do not want to hear you out or validate your feelings.
So rather than come at your partner with “you statements” (think “you’re always late”), try using an “I” statement to express your feelings.
For example, if your partner is late, you could say “I feel unappreciated when you are not home on time.”
It’s also helpful to avoid using words like “always” and “never,” such as “you never clean up” or “you always blow me off.” When you speak in broad strokes about your partner’s behavior, you give them little room to show improvement and derail the conversation away from compromise or progress.
State your needs
Using the other tips mentioned above (like “I” statements), try to state your needs in a relationship by first describing how you feel before saying what you need.
For example, says Rachel Brandwene, licensed therapist and relationship coach, you could say “I feel nervous and I worry when I don’t know what time you’ll be home.”
Then, Brandwene recommends, “follow this statement by clearly asserting what it is that you need or want.”
For example, you could ask that they send you a text to let you know when they are running late or on their way home.
“Make sure to be kind and compassionate while stating this,” she says. “Appear confident and remain mindful of the other person’s response. This will allow both of you to have a productive conversation with open honesty and transparency.”
Allow room for compromise
At the end of the day, no one is perfect and no one wants to change themselves completely to meet the needs and desires of their partner.
So it’s important in a relationship to be willing to negotiate, looking for a place that is comfortable for both of you.
Stay on topic
It’s easy when you’re frustrated to let a conversation or argument get off topic — especially when you’re feeling defensive or guilty about something you did. This can be a way to deflect or minimize your responsibility and protect yourself.
“I can understand why a conversation about chores turns into a conversation about something your mother-in-law said 10 years ago,” says Rieger, “Sometimes it all feels related. However, it’s not helpful and will likely prevent you from solving other problems.”
This will help you stay on topic and keep the conversation productive.
“Having a conversation when you are emotionally charged will almost always end poorly,” says Brandwene, so “before beginning a productive conversation following a miscommunication or a conflict, make sure that you have taken some space to process.”
“I recommend taking at the very least 20 minutes of space to reflect on how you are feeling and what you want to discuss when returning back to each other,” she continues.
“In those 20 minutes, try not to engage in blame or negativity towards that person but rather do something that nourishes you such as getting out into nature for a walk or connecting to your breath.”
“It’s incredibly common to have misunderstandings in arguments,” says McGraw. In fact, she says, it’s one of the most common reasons why people seek her help as a relationship therapist.
It can be difficult for us to break old patterns or bad communication habits with our partners on our own. So if you’re experiencing conflict in your relationship stemming from misunderstandings, remember you’re not alone.
This is why therapy — including couples therapy if your partner is open to it — can help. Your therapist can help work with you to develop different tools and skills so that you can let go of past resentments and work together toward a healthier relationship.
Brandwene R. (2022). Personal interview.
Ezell-Whiddon O. (2022). Personal interview
Landrum N. (2022). Personal interview.
McGraw D. (2022). Personal interview.
Rieger M. (2022). Personal interview.