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3 Reasons It’s So Easy to Misunderstand a Partner

1. Ignoring their past.

Key points

  • Many conflicts between partners arise from unverified assumptions.
  • Believing that a partner's past life has no effect on their present can lead to many misunderstandings and relationship problems.
  • It's harmful to assume you already know what your partner needs and wants or how they will react in a given situation.
 Timur Weber/Pexels
Source: Timur Weber/Pexels

Research has repeatedly shown that what you don’t know about your partner can hurt you—not to mention your partner and the relationship itself. When the misunderstandings that arise from such ignorance are constant or serious enough, separation and divorce are all too often the outcomes.

This post will focus on the three unverified assumptions that cause most of our relationship issues. The more knowledge we acquire about our partner, the better able we’ll be to avoid or resolve these problems when they inevitably occur.

Here are the major assumptions that jeopardize virtually all committed relationships:

1. We assume we can just dismiss our partner’s past life from any ongoing exploration.

On the contrary, knowing about our partner’s past is essential to fully understanding them. And we need to become more psychologically astute if we’re to accurately grasp the various ways that, however obliquely, their past pinpoints relationship problems with which we’ll need to contend—if, that is, we’re to understand in the present their at times confusing (maybe even mystifying) reactions.

Moreover, if we’re to gain insight into their foundational programming—emanating primarily from childhood and adolescence—we need to ask them:

  • What was their parenting like?
  • How well did they feel they fit in with their family?
  • Did they feel understood by their parents?
  • Were their parents genuinely caring and supportive?
  • Or were they neglected—and/or emotionally, physically, or sexually abused?
  • How were they disciplined—and for what behaviors?
  • What might they have felt deprived of?
  • Overindulged with?
  • Overprotected from?
  • Inappropriately made responsible for?
  • Misinformed about or even lied to?
  • Obliged to conform to or believe (i.e., their “socialization”—including their parents’ religious beliefs and adherence to cultural customs and conventions)?
  • And what else do they think may have negatively influenced their development?

All these matters can help us better grasp any problems we may have in understanding why they react to us as they do and why our communication with them can sometimes go terribly awry. It’s safe to assume that certain things they experienced handicapped the healthiness of their upbringing and that, without having been productively dealt with, they can’t help but bring them into the current relationship.

Plus, many other factors may have played a role in making them the person they are today. So if we’re truly interested in learning about—and, hopefully, being more compassionate toward—their present-day behavior, it’s also wise to ask them questions about past losses, school experiences, problematic friendships, and dating history.

Were they ever made fun of, ridiculed, shamed, or bullied? And if so, how did it affect them? Might they themselves ever have bullied anyone? Did a friend, neighbor, or sibling ever betray or reject them? Did they ever feel they weren’t smart enough? As a teen, how much did they date, and how might it have influenced their development?

Doubtless, many other things could have served to shape their personalities—such as behavior-altering hormones, physical abnormalities, surgeries, and innate temperament and sensitivities.

But the single, most important thing to learn about our partner is what felt traumatic to them growing up. Whether their alarming experiences strike us as major or minor, we can safely assume that at the time, they all threatened their sense of survival. Which—consciously or not—made our partner determined to avoid or combat anything that felt similar in the future.

Finally, it’s absolutely imperative to add that we ought to explore our own past in the same scrutinizing vein. Accurately understanding our partner significantly relates to understanding how our particular upbringing shaped (or “misshaped”) our perspective toward ourselves and others.

2. We assume we know what our partner needs and wants.

Because we believe our courtship revealed who our partner truly was, we may not later reconsider or reevaluate their needs and desires—as well as their fundamental values and ideals. When we first fell in love, we “accentuated the positive and eliminated the negative.” This is to say that it’s likely they (just as we did) didn’t disclose much about themselves that they suspected we might disapprove of. It’s only human that when we’re in a romantic relationship, believing that the other person could be the one we’ve longed for, we’d be quite selective in what we permitted to be known about us.

In fact, both of us wanted to be seen as “special,” and that paramount motivation typically drove us to present an idealized version of ourselves, one that couldn’t be maintained indefinitely—certainly not when we’d succeeded in “finalizing” (i.e., domesticating) the relationship, and unforeseen discrepancies between us began to rear their ugly heads.

And once feelings of disenchantment set in, seriously undermining the not-yet-committed but mostly idyllic reality of courtship, the personality conflicts so “craftily” avoided earlier could no longer be hidden.

3. We assume our partner will behave and react the same way that we would.

Because we think we can understand our partner’s actions by likening them to what, in an analogous situation, would be our own, we’re likely to delude ourselves. Unless we’re experienced mental health professionals or unusually intuitive, we’re more or less doomed to interpret another’s behavior—and especially our partner’s—based on our own individual psyche. That is, we project onto them motives for their behavior in line with our own predilections and habits. And more than anything else, this overriding tendency ignores the simple fact that no two psyches are identical.

As I’ve already emphasized in discussing the many ways our partner’s biology and biography can vary substantially from our own, making glib assumptions about the accuracy of our perceptions can easily jinx our relationship. That’s why many self-help books related to marital discord stress the need to verify with our partners our suppositions about their motives.

Even if our partner can’t, or won’t, own up to the actual objectives behind their behavior, it’s still best to meet them where they’re at and not insist that they’re being dishonest or that you know them better than they do. No one appreciates being “psychoanalytically dissected,” so speaking to them this way is guaranteed to initiate or worsen the conflicts between you.

The phenomenon of projection dovetails with the similarly jeopardizing psychic mechanism of mind reading. When we presume to get inside our partner’s brain—with an authority we don’t possess—we’re liable to alienate our partner. Unfortunately, when we’re guilty of this, we’re also guilty of not asking them whether our impressions of their behavior coincide with their own.

Additionally, if we’ve developed a negative bias toward our partner, we may misunderstand what they’re saying, falsely interpret their intent, and become unnecessarily irritated with them. Or we may have misinterpreted the tone of their utterance. Or if they went silent, needing to mull over what we just said to them, we may conclude they’re harboring hostile feelings toward us. And there are even more instances of how easy it can be to slip inadvertently into an enduring state of marital misunderstanding.

What needs to be kept in the forefront of our consciousness is that despite our reactions to our partner feeling objective, they’re undeniably subjective. As suggested earlier, if we’re to speak to our partner about our impressions, we need to advance them as such and leave them the final authority to decide on their accuracy. Otherwise, they’ll experience us as trying to undermine their cognitive autonomy and feel that much more emotionally distant from us.

Ultimately, getting greater clarity about any given situation with our partner is what’s called for. And that can’t happen unless—resolutely and empathically—we stay open-minded and invite them to give us their reaction to, well, our reaction to them.

© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

Facebook image: ShotPrime Studio/Shutterstock

References

Agyukarm S. J. (2019, Jan 31). Navigating misunderstandings and conflict. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2019/01/31/how-deal-effectively-m…

Boissiere, E. (2022, Feb 15). 5 misunderstandings that will cause problems in your closest relationships. https://everydaypower.com/reasons-for-a-misunderstanding-in-relationshi…

Seltzer, L. F. (2009, Feb 22). In families, blood may be thicker . . . but skin is thinner. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/200902

Seltzer, L. F. (2021, Oct 13). Why people get offended so easily. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/node/1167581/preview

Seltzer, L. F. (2022, Jan 19). 9 ways to make your partner your best friend. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/202201/9-way…

Tartakovsky, M. (2013, Jun 4). 7 pointers for couples to prevent & resolve misunderstandings. https://psychcentral.com/blog/7-pointers-for-couples-to-prevent-resolve…

White, M. D. (2011, Mar 27). Why we don’t hear each other. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/maybe-its-just-me/201103/why-we…

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