Between You and Me

Why some relationships work—and others don't

In a Fight, Who's Right? You Both May Be

Unique knowledge and experiences create different views of the same situation

Once my husband and I got into a fight over a pillowcase. It was one of those times where it was clearly his fault, and I was sure he would apologize the next day. He didn't. Instead he seemed surprised that I wasn't apologizing to him. How could we have such different views of the same conflict? Which one of us was right?

It turns out that we were both right, in our own way. Misunderstandings like the one that led to a fight over a pillowcase occur because people tend to be naïve realists. That is, we believe that we see social interactions as they truly are, and that other people see them the same way that we do. However, one of the most enduring contributions of social psychology is the understanding that two people can interpret the same social interaction in very different ways based on their own personal knowledge and experiences (Asch, 1952). What does this mean for me? I thought my husband had taken my pillowcase as a joke. He knew he had done it on accident. These different pieces of knowledge led us to interpret the same conversation in very different ways.

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Our misunderstanding over the pillowcase is not a lone example. In close relationships there will inevitably times when our personal experiences lead us to interpret interactions differently than our partners. These different interpretations may be due to chronic differences such as differences in culture or how we were raised. For example, you and your partner may disagree about whether or not to be affectionate in public because one of you was raised by affectionate parents and the other's parents looked down on public affection. Different interpretations may also be due to something in the moment, such as getting upset with your partner for being late, not knowing that their boss stopped them on their way out of the office.

So what does psychological research suggest you do the next time your partner shows up late for an event or doesn’t want to come to a dinner with your friends that is so obviously important to you?

Refrain from making a snap judgment. You weren't misled when you were taught that first impressions matter. People tend to anchor onto their initial impressions of a situation and have a hard time forming a new impression, even in light of disconfirming information. When you first realize you and your partner have differing opinions, tell yourself that you are going to wait until you have all the facts before you interpret the situation.

Look for disconfirming information. We tend to look for facts that confirm our beliefs. If you are frustrated that your partner was supposed to be home 10 minutes ago, the automatic response is to think about all the other times your partner was late, and envision her chatting with friends and ignoring the time. Instead, force yourself to think about any times when your partner was late due to circumstances out of her control and search for reasons that could help explain why your partner wasn’t able to get home when she said she would.

Put yourself in your partner’s shoes. Think about how you might feel if you were in your partner’s situation. What reasons might lead you to show up later than you said? Or, for example, what might make you not want to attend a dinner party with your partner's friends? Its also important to think about what experiences your partner might have had that would lead him to interpret a situation differently than you (Todd et al., 2011). Has your partner been uncomfortable and anxious in other social situations that might explain why he doesn’t want to attend your friends’ dinner? Does he have some big project coming up at work that is stressing him out?

Don’t try to figure out who’s right. Instead of approaching disagreements with your partner as a chance to convince her you are right and she is wrong, think of it as a puzzle in which the two of you have to work together to figure out the source of your misunderstanding.

Ask your partner what he or she is thinking. Often we are so focused on making sure our partners understand our point of view, we forget to ask them why they feel the way they do. You may be so intent on making sure you partner understands how important your friends’ dinner is to you, that you forget to ask him why he doesn’t want to attend. Your partner, being a naïve realist, is also likely to think its obvious that he is too stressed out about work to be good company for you and won’t think to volunteer that information. Instead your partner will get more and more frustrated at you for bugging him about the event.

Although I’ve described the consequences of naïve realism in terms of interactions with a romantic partner, these same principles apply to interactions with anyone. If your boss seems to be really pushing you to get a project done, it may be that he is a jerk, but it may also be that he doesn’t realize how many other projects you have to finish this month, or he is being pressured by his own boss to get the job done. When you interact with someone, whether they are a new friend or a long-time partner, research suggests that taking a moment to consider that they may be approaching the interaction with a different point of view can only lead to smoother interactions.

Have you ever used one of these suggestions when you were in conflict with someone close to you? Did it work?

Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D. is a post-doctoral scholar in Social-Personality Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. 

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