One weekend 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 our fight occur because people tend to be naïve realists. 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).
I thought my husband had taken my pillowcase as a joke. He knew he had done it by accident. These different pieces of knowledge led us to interpret the same conversation in very different ways. Our misunderstanding is not uncommon. In close relationships there will inevitably be times when our personal experiences lead us to interpret interactions differently than our partners. These interpretations may be due to chronic differences in culture or the 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 while 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 but not knowing that their boss stopped them on their way out of the office.
What does the psychological research suggest you do the next time your partner shows up late for an event, declines going to dinner with your friends, or otherwise does something that offends you in a major way?
- 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 impression of a situation, and have a hard time forming a new one, even in the light of disconfirming information. When you first realize that 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 because your partner was supposed to be home 10 minutes ago, the automatic response is to think about all the other times she was late and envision her chatting with friends or otherwise ignoring the time. Instead, force yourself to think about the times your partner was late due to circumstances out of her control and imagine the reasons that could help explain why she 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? What might make you not want to attend your partner's friends' dinner? It's 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 the dinner? Does he have a big project 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 that 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 points 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 it's obvious that he is too stressed out about work to be good company for you, but won’t think to volunteer that information. Instead your partner will get more and more frustrated at you for bugging him about the event.
I’ve described the consequences of naïve realism in terms of interactions with a romantic partner, but the 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 she is a jerk, but it may also be that she doesn’t realize how many other projects you have to finish this month—or maybe she's being pressured by her own boss to get the job done. When you interact with someone, whether a new acquaintance or a long-term partner, research suggests that taking a moment to consider that they may be approaching your interaction with a different point of view than yours can only lead to a smoother relationship.