How Couples Misunderstand Each Other
There’s no “Me-harmony.”
Posted Jul 20, 2016
A heart-breaking experience of counseling couples is seeing good people suffer due to the entirely avoidable illusion of sameness.
In the illusion of sameness, partners assume that events and behaviors have the same emotional meaning for both of them. At first the illusion leads to hurt and bewilderment:
“How could he do that?”
“How could she think/feel that way?”
The eventual response is invidious:
“I wouldn’t react like that if it happened to me, so he/she is overreacting.”
“Unbelievable! He/she must have a personality disorder!”
The great irony of the illusion of sameness is that we’re most attracted to partners who differ from us. (A copy of yourself dressed up to look like an intimate partner would be so incredibly boring that you might as well live by yourself.) Besides having different parents, intimate partners are likely to have different core vulnerabilities, different temperaments, different gender socialization, and different support networks. They will certainly have different life experiences, different hormones or hormonal levels, and different trajectories to their emotional development. All of these will cause them to give different emotional meanings to the same events. These differences are a large part of what attracts lovers, expands their world-view, and enhances their experience of being alive. But in the second year of living together, couples who love in the Toddler brain (dominated by feelings and momentary comfort level, rather than values) begin quarreling about the same qualities that attracted them in the first place:
“I used to love that you were so energetic. But you don’t have to bounce off the damn walls. Just relax!”
“I used to love that you were so calm, but I never bargained for somebody dead. Get up and do something!”
Due to my particular specialty, by the time couples come to me they’re trapped in habits of hyper-resentment, high emotional reactivity, and contempt. The work then requires forming new habits of emotion regulation. They must replace Toddler brain habits of blame, denial, and avoidance with Adult brain habits of improve, appreciate, connect, and protect.
What's heart-breaking is that negative habits of interacting are entirely preventable, simply by appreciating differences and using them to enhance relationships. Unhappy couples engage in fruitless power struggles to see which "differences" will dominate the relationship.
I’ve listed the psychological differences that, misunderstood and unchecked by understanding and compassion, eventually turn into chronic resentment and contempt:
- Focus, refocus
- Processing styles
- Core vulnerabilities
One partner is likely to focus better than the other. Heightened concentration requires shutting out distractions. The heightened focus of one partner can easily appear to be disregarding or rejecting to the other. That’s understandable, since whatever we focus on becomes more important at that moment than what we’re not focused on. To make matters worse, the concentrated mental energy required of focus funnels into frustration when focus is interrupted. In general, the sharper your focus, the harder it is to refocus, due to frustration.
The partner’s sense of rejection and isolation can be ameliorated with frequent small gestures of connection – brief touch, eye contact, smile, embrace – when not focusing. (The Power Love Formula takes less than 5 minutes a day to establish routine connection – see compassionpower.com.)
The focusing partner must also be aware that the frustration of refocus is mostly physiological and that blaming it on the partner is not only unfair, it will make refocus all the more difficult. If you enjoy the advantage of heightened focus, you must accept its cost: greater difficulty in refocusing.
The focusing partner should try to do the above, but realistically he/she won’t do it all the time; most routine behaviors in relationships are habits that run on autopilot. When your partner seems to shut you out or get irritated when you interrupt, remember that he/she cannot refocus as easily as you. Look for times when your partner is available for connection. Avoid the attitude of, “Connect when and where I want or not at all.”
Often one partner processes information by parsing it into categories. For example, trees are wooden, green, rooted, hard, and so on. He/she will likely have a declarative communication style – this is the way it is – which is not necessarily dogmatic or oversimplifying (the categories can have complex subcategories). It’s just easier for categorizers to understand information if it’s fit into a category.
The categorizer is likely to be in a committed relationship with someone who processes information through juxtaposition. The tree might relate to a house because both are wood or to a wardrobe item because both are green.
Without understanding these differences, the categorizer will get impatient when a discussion of the tree in the backyard turns into a point about a wardrobe choice and will likely judge the partner as “illogical” (or worse), even as the partner will see him/her as too constrictive, narrow in range of thinking, and probably too critical.
Both partners need to see their differences as enhancing their relationship by expanding its processing capacity. Processing styles are different ways of looking at the world. In discussions, they are different ways of arriving at the truth, which, as John Ruskin put it, is polygonal.
The categorizer has to listen for subtleties in the discourse of the juxtaposer, who must in turn see a declarative style of speech as the partner's attempts to understand, rather than his/her insistence on an exclusive definition.
The dimensions of temperament most likely to be exaggerated in committed relationships are intensity (energy level) and emotional tone (what it feels like to be you).
Broadly speaking, people with high innate energy are more inclined to action than reflection and prefer some kind of external structure to guide their abundant energy. Those with lower energy levels tend to have a slower metabolism, be more thoughtful before acting, and prefer a looser external structure so they can think about where to invest their more limited energy.
Clashes over emotional tone in committed relationships cluster around anxiety regulation. Specifically, what lowers anxiety in one partner raises it in the other. For example, one partner focuses on details while the other attends to the big picture; one is more organized, orderly, punctual, and rigid than the other. If it's very important for you to be on time, it's almost certain that you're married to someone who is often late.
"Opposites attract" turns out to be a myth. We're drawn to people with moderate differences in temperament, looking for potential partners who "fill in our gaps," as a popular movie character put it. For instance, highly organized people admire the spontaneity and tendency to "think outside the box" of their less organized dates, who, in turn, enjoy the stability and "feet on the ground" qualities of their potential partners.
While we are not attracted to opposites, we seem to become opposites when living together. For instance, the anxious partner is more prone to worry. At least on an unconscious level, he/she will worry that the less anxious partner is not “worrying enough.” The less anxious partner will sense the rise in anxiety and try harder to relax and let things “roll off my back.” They argue:
“You have to be more concerned about or lives.”
“You have to worry less.
This is the classic argument where partners insist:
“You have to be more like me. See the world the way I do and feel the way I do.”
In viable relationships, partners must share responsibilities and labor more or less equally, but not energy levels and emotional tone. They must understand that they are different and accept each other for who they are. Specific behaviors are negotiable, differences in focus, processing, temperament, and core vulnerabilities are not.
In the next post, I’ll take up the most troublesome of the invisible differences that cause fractures in love relationships: differences in core vulnerabilities.
For more information on overcoming Toddler brain habits, see Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of the Brain Under Any Kind of Stress