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How Threat Emotions Cause Us to Misread Our Partner

Anxiety, hurt, and anger can distort your perceptions more than you realize.

Just how well do we read our intimate partners? As long as we're composed, we're generally pretty good at it. But whenever our threat emotions (i.e., anxiety and anger) are triggered, accuracy goes right out the window.

Emotion-driven misinterpretations spell trouble for relationships. They lead to escalating accusations, disappearing trust, and constricting hearts. If only we could recognize how emotions shape perceptions, we could restore connection with our partner. That's the aim of this primer.

The Alerted Brain

Running unconsciously in the background, our brain has an alarm system alert for threats to physical and psychological needs. At the instant we register a threat, a host of coping responses commence. Cortisol and adrenalin are secreted. Breathing and heart rate quicken, sending oxygen and sugar to our limbs to ready us for fight or flight. Neural activity increases in the brain's limbic section, generating threat-countering emotions and additional interpretations of danger. These processes work together and impact one another. Thoughts directly affect emotions (a link that is the focus of cognitive therapy). The equally important reverse direction — how threat emotions influence our thinking — is the subject this article addresses.

The function of anxiety and anger is to viscerally warn of a danger so that we take self-protective measures. To succeed at this task, we're designed to over-estimate threat. The only surefire guarantee that actual risks are never missed is giving ambiguous threats the same credence as definite ones. Better to be safe than sorry. This evolutionary adaptation was vital for survival on the savannah, but it's another story entirely with our relationships.

Misinterpreting Our Partner When We're Anxious, Angry, or Hurt

Because we're profoundly dependent on our partner for basic psychological needs, we're easily triggered in intimate relationships. Nowhere else do we feel quite so attached (or rejected), and quite so respected (or unvalued). Whenever these needs seem jeopardized, our limbic system can flare, and anxiety, anger, and hurt arise.

Such emotions dramatically color our interpretations whereby we automatically — and often erroneously — tend to view our partner as untrustworthy, uncaring, unfair or disrespectful. Here, in greater detail, are five overlapping ways that happens.

1. When we feel anxious or angry, we're certain there's a legitimate basis.

Anxiety is nature's indicator that peril lurks. When it appears, we're convinced in our gut that we're endangered. The emotion itself is regarded as proof that a bona fide peril exists. "If I feel upset with my partner, s/he must have done something."

But that's not necessarily the case. While the experience of anxiety or anger is indisputably real, the cause we attribute may or may not be. We're fully capable of feeling anxious even when our partner's actions have nothing to do with danger.

-- Donna got a text from a male customer. When Gareth noticed, he immediately became anxious. He took his fear as evidence there was a romantic interest in her life.

-- Any time Juanita got suspicious, she believed this was a sign that Alvaro was up to something fishy. She was certain her intuitive "sixth sense" correctly detected his wrongdoing.

2. When we feel hurt, we believe it was intended.

When we feel hurt by our partner, we presume it was deliberate. Taking things personally is an adaptive aspect of our fight/flight reflex, since it mobilizes us to act protectively.

Even if we're a bit unclear whether our partner purposely meant to harm us, we nonetheless suppose s/he was perfectly willing to. After all, s/he is well aware of our desires or sensitivities yet callously ignored them. It seems implausible that it could have been accidental. What we forget is that we can feel upset or wounded without our spouse intending that outcome.

-- Because she was chastised throughout childhood, Jan was determined to never repeat that behavior when raising her own family. When she and her teenage daughter started arguing, her husband Michael commented that she was too critical. Jan felt stung and thought he meant to hurt her, given that this was a sore spot of hers.

Mistakenly assuming ill will is all the more likely because we're limited in our capacity to know another person's motives. Since what's going on in our partner's mind can't be directly observed, we fill in the blank to correspond with our misgivings.

Limbic activation is — unfortunately — why we hesitate to trust our partner's favorable deeds in the aftermath of conflicts. If we're still on alert when s/he extends an olive branch or complies with our requests, and we can't see into her/his heart, we doubt that positive responses are earnest.

-- Following a tense interaction, Paul became demonstratively soft and caring towards Jean. But Jean folded her arms across her chest and scoffed that Paul was disingenuous.

The hidden quality of motives leads to another misinterpretation we make when threatened. That's suspecting that anything our partner isn't overtly revealing is being deliberately withheld. We warily question what our spouse is not disclosing and why it's concealed.

-- Though Terrell was reserved temperamentally, Jasmine feared he was calculating in what he divulged. She watched for omitted information when he recounted his activities. If she didn't know everything about his day, she anticipated he was surreptitiously planning an affair.

3. Under threat, our perceptions narrow to black or white categories.

Under threat, we think in simplified black or white terms. This binary shift occurs so that we can definitively classify the source as either friend or foe, the situation as safe or unsafe. Anything vague that falls in the middle is mislabeled as dangerous. We instinctually over-assess threat and give up precision in order to assure security.

Why is it so common that when couples fight they make the absolute allegations of "you always..." or "you never...?" This isn't just a debate tactic. When the mind is steeped in fear or anger, it has trouble accessing "sometimes." At that moment, we can't recall instances when our partner acted differently because that recollection would let down our guard. The reliable protection is all or nothing, black or white.

-- Early in their relationship, Lauren was deceptive with Yong about a previous boyfriend. She fessed up and thereafter was consistently honest. Nevertheless, whenever she mentioned a male colleague from work, Yong would get scared and accuse her of being a chronic liar.

4. When we feel hurt, we view our partner as wrong.

Feeling hurt triggers an innate moral instinct — i.e., the belief that the other has acted unjustly. The perpetrator is bad and wrong. Such condemnation is speculated to be part of how we are wired as a social species. All societies have moral standards to protect the group and use them to censure members' transgressions.

The complementary side of the moral instinct is viewing our self as a "good person" who does right. That's how we feel secure in our social standing. This need to hold a favorable self-image masks our shame and responsibility for producing harm. We give ourselves a pass; it's our partner who's unfair.

In so doing, we employ a cognitive bias called "the fundamental attribution error." This refers to deeming the other party's aversive behavior as representing an inner character flaw (e.g., " He's lazy") while excusing our own problematic action as circumstantial ("I didn't clean up because I worked late"). What we overlook is that both sides co-create conflict, each party responding to the other.

-- When Peggy and Jim quarreled, Peggy would regard him as a bully and contend she was harsh only in self-defense.

5. We over-exaggerate new threats if we're insecure in our relationship.

If we're feeling insecure in our relationship, our threat alarm system turns up and we over-estimate new instances of potential danger. It's like a car alarm with a delicately set motion detector. The trip-wire activates when a truck rumbles by. Harmless clatter is falsely recorded as a break in.

Once we're anxious and hyper-vigilant, it's difficult to distinguish small slights from larger ones; they all seem substantial. We overreact each time our partner falters. Should we notice a downturned lip or hear impatience, we're convinced that we're being abandoned or demeaned.

-- When Holly and Stu were engaged and hit a rough patch, Stu called off the wedding. Though they mended things and got married, Holly kept a watchful eye. Whenever he was less than exuberant, Holly surmised he was about to leave.

The five processes just discussed are variants of the same theme: After emotions kick in, perceptions skew. Yet, the reasons we get initially triggered are significant pieces in the puzzle, since they further illuminate the connection between threat, emotion and — ultimately — inaccurate interpretation. Here are three.

1. Conditioned fear causes neutral stimuli to be perceived as dangerous.

In the same way that Pavlov's dogs became conditioned to salivate at the clang of a bell (by pairing food with a bell), people learn to associate all sorts of innocuous stimuli with danger. That's why some war trauma veterans jump when they hear a car backfiring. The car sounds like a gun, and the autonomic nervous system responds as if it's actually a weapon.

The instant something occurs with our partner that frightens or angers us, our brain picks out neutral cues connected to the event. These can be people, places, sounds, smells, things, or calendar dates. When we later encounter these same cues — even if there's no threat present — we react fearfully and incorrectly name our partner as the cause.

-- Devondra panicked about infidelity when Paul went away on his first business trip to France. Though nothing happened, the geography became a conditioned cue. Thereafter, any time he referenced anything French, her fear spiked and she questioned Paul's trustworthiness.

2. We confuse our partner with people from the past.

Another kind of conditioning takes place via a process called transference — i.e., equating situations and people in our present life with those from our past. While this linkage shades all our experiences, it is especially evident after emotional scarring in previous romances, our family of origin, or traumatic experiences. We presume our partner is going to hurt us in the same way others have.

Transference is an adaptive mechanism that allows us to predict and avoid repeating painful occurrences. On the face of it, that makes total sense; no one wants to endure more suffering. Yet, the trouble is we often wrongly infer equivalence. Our wife is not our mother, even if at the moment they seem hard to tell apart.

-- April's former husband cheated on her, so every time Gary talked to another woman, her anxiety shot up and she was convinced he would betray her.

-- Carlos' first wife spent all of his previously accumulated savings. When he subsequently became engaged to Isabel, he insisted on a pre-nuptial agreement because he anticipated she would do likewise.

3. When our needs are unmet, we view our partner as a foe.

If our partner fails to assent to our strongly held desires, our brain goes into threat mode. This invariably occurs whenever our interests are at odds with his/hers. Emotions can be roused, and we erroneously regard him/her as a foe who is opposing us rather than an ally with separate preferences.

-- Antonio's parents grew up in the Great Depression and instilled the value of putting money away for safekeeping. His position was at variance with Maria's wish for "live for now" purchases, and she criticized him as an obstinate tightwad.

-- Chandra valued anniversary celebrations as the confirmation of love. When Willie missed that date, Chandra was scared and thought, "A true partner wouldn't do that." However, Willie showed his devotion in other ways.

Sometimes, even simple differences threaten us. When our partner's inclinations don't match our own, anxiety swells and we infer that his/her attachment is weak.

-- Amy was uneasy if Bob watched sports on weekends rather than join her in gardening. She worried that his disparate activity reflected a lack of commitment to her.

There's one final aspect of threat that contributes to our misinterpretations: Under threat, we can't grasp our partner's perspective.

An alarmed limbic system produces its own exaggerations. However, it's often joined with a concurrent brain event that also increases the probability we'll misjudge — a drowned out prefrontal cortex. This brain area houses our capacity to contemplate and understand context, and when it's overrun, we're unable to conceive of a suitable reason for our partner's actions. We can't see that his/her behavior is driven by his/her own apprehensions. Failing to notice our partner's perspective, it's easy to misinterpret.

Further, prefrontal lobe functioning diminishes (and limbic activity heightens) when we're fatigued or stressed. As a result, in those states we're even more apt to misunderstand and find fault with our partner.

-- When she got into conflicts with Drew, Jesse would attempt to shut down discussion. This incited Drew, who felt waived off. But it wasn't that Jesse didn't care; she was gun shy having been raised by a verbally abusive father and wanted to feel safe. Drew completely missed that.

Certain That We're Right

And still, over-assessing threat is just the initial blunder. We make the additional misstep of dismissing the possibility that we might be mistaken. As Kathryn Schultz chronicled in her 2010 book Being Wrong, we consider our perceptions to be infallible. This propensity to trust what we sense is always present, but it is fiercest when we feel threatened. At those times, our faith in our deductions is ironclad. It's not that we might be in danger, we're sure we are. Such certainty is what enables us to protect ourselves quickly and decisively. He who hesitates is lost or, as with our forebears, eaten!

It's a bit backwards. We're the most adamantly wedded to our assessments when we're emotional — the very times we're most prone to misinterpret.

The Adverse Impact of Misreading Our Partner

Even if we do miscalculate our partner's intent, aren't we better off safe than sorry? That may be how our brain instinctually thinks when alarmed, but the inevitable consequence is that self-protective misinterpretations undermine relationship wellbeing.

Regarding our mate as a foe who is a threat rather than a friend who evoked upset reinforces our angry/anxious emotions towards our partner. These turn around and generate further misgivings. Within the reciprocal nature of thoughts and feelings, we get caught in our own negative loop.

We don't just misread our partner in the moment and then let it go. Long after the dispute, we replay his/her indignities as a (fruitless) strategy to prevent future reoccurrence. Dwelling causes us to harden.

As memory researchers have found, we believe anything we repeatedly tell ourselves, regardless of its validity. The more we restate, "S/he is uncaring," the more solidly it seems true. Negative perceptions snowball and reassuring memories fade. A disparaging narrative sets in that is difficult to dislodge. We lose the ability to understand our partner's experience and his/her desire to connect.

But the most damaging result is that these misperceptions lead us to behave in ways that harm our partner (unintentionally, out of self-preservation). Particularly detrimental is taking the stance that if we feel anxious/hurt, then our partner must be the one to change what s/he's doing. While s/he unquestionably plays a big role in conflicts, when we accuse our partner of being wrong, s/he feels blamed and controlled - furthering a defensive, vicious cycle.

Shifting Our Mindset

So what can we do? Can we ever override the misinterpretations that are so deeply tied to our threat emotions?

We can, but that's not what we'd prefer. Shedding them feels like we're exposing ourselves to renewed injury. We'd much rather gain relief by making our partner admit fault and change. Yet, for reasons just mentioned, that's a losing strategy. Besides, it's not necessary to force our spouse to shift. As this article has hopefully revealed, we manufacture a fair amount of misinterpretations on our own. That means with deliberate effort and courage, we can single-handedly get the ball rolling.

Here's an abbreviated three-step set of suggestions for catching and readjusting misinterpretations.

Step 1. Recognize when you're triggered and initiate self-regulation.

Assess whether your anxiety or anger is higher than a "3" on a scale of 1 to 10. If it is, we're programmed to fixate on our partner as a threat and aren't ready to be constructive. Signs that we're emotionally activated include a sense of urgency, clenched muscles, a raised voice, trembling and a pressure to strike back or escape. (The interactions that provoke these reactions tend to be predictable, so learn what they are.)

Note, "I'm triggered" (or "I'm angry/anxious") and then endeavor to calm. If we're in an argument that is intensifying feelings, take a "time out" break to de-escalate, with the agreement that discussion will resume once emotions are lowered.

There are many possible solo soothing techniques: Go for a walk, exercise, breathe deeply, meditate, watch TV, engage in hobbies, write in a journal, read, listen to music, sit with the feeling, play video games, get some sleep. What's important is to use whichever plan we know from experience helps us to settle. Needless to say, there are activities a couple can do together that would be mutually comforting, but that's the subject of other articles. This article focuses on how one partner can — and ought to —- try to self-regulate and realign cognitions.

Step 2. Examine interpretations with a grain of salt.

After we begin to cool down, we still maintain a precautionary vigilance about our partner. That mental guardedness keeps stirring our limbic system. To overcome this pull, try to remember that emotions can distort perceptions. This is one of the most difficult things for people to accept: We can feel offended when our partner isn't necessarily disrespectful; we can feel our partner doesn't value us when s/he actually does care.

Lay resentments aside. Rehearsing thoughts of being mistreated maintains a sense of threat. If rumination starts running amuck, think of something (i.e. anything!) else.

Pay attention to our language of "s/he's unfair" or "s/he always does that." Adopt a "no fault/no blame/no assumed ill will" stance where both parties inadvertently activate each other.

An additional method for holding thoughts lightly is the practice of mindfulness. Step back and observe thoughts without buying into them. We don't need to abolish negative thoughts about our partner — just note that they appear and then let them roll by, like a train that approaches the station and then travels onward. Watch the train of thoughts, but don't board.

Do the same with emotions. Anger, hurt, and anxiety can be painful or worrisome, but they're not "bad." They're universal survival mechanisms. Acknowledge the feelings without judgment.

Step 3. Summon benevolent thoughts.

Once we're relatively calm, attempt a third step — viewing our partner as an ally. Here's where we can take advantage of the fact that thoughts influence emotions.

Give credence to our partner's positive intentions. Regard him/her as a collaborator, albeit one who bungles. Though s/he can disappoint, conjure ways s/he engages with us that we appreciate. Such reflections decrease our threat hormones.

Be curious about our partner's experience. Realize that s/he is also feeling threat. Notice her/his pain. Consider what s/he needs to feel secure. Recollect his/her life history. Empathy opens us.

It's not that we can simply think our way back into a loving union. Relationship affection, respect and mutuality require much more than clearing our head of distortions. Nevertheless, the ability to be aware of how our interpretations can be amiss and to shift mindsets is foundational. Doing so diminishes our fight/flight emotions, fosters our reaching out, and breaks through stalemates. So the next time we're absolutely sure that our partner is a foe who can't be trusted, remember that's the thought of a brain under the influence of anxiety or anger.

More from Russell B. Lemle Ph.D.
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