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Misunderstandings in Love Relationships

Why do we so often misunderstand loved ones?

In nearly four decades of counseling distressed couples, it’s become clear to me that a lot of the conflict between partners, and, indeed, the pain that partners inflict on each other, starts with simple misinterpretations of differences.

The most frequent mistake in relationships is the illusion of sameness — assuming that events and behaviors mean the same (or should) to both partners. But partners may differ in:

  • Temperament
  • Metabolism
  • Hormonal levels
  • Core vulnerability
  • Family history
  • Life experiences
  • Developmental course (matured at different stages).

At first the “disillusion of sameness” bewilders: “How could he do that?” Or, “How could she possibly feel that way?”

Eventually, it leads to: “I wouldn’t react that way, so my partner is inappropriate.” Or, “Unbelievable! It must be a personality disorder!”

Here are the common differences which, misunderstood, lead to chronic resentment and erosion of intimate connection:


Mental focus requires shutting out distractions. People who don’t focus effortlessly—most of the population—have to work harder to shut out distractions and maintain mental focus. When focus is interrupted, the concentrated mental energy funnels into frustration. The sharper the focus, the more effort it takes to refocus, due to frustration.

The frustration of refocus is mostly physiological. Blaming it on the partner who feels ignored or rejected is not only unfair, it lowers frustration-tolerance and makes refocus nearly impossible.

The toxic misinterpretation of focus and refocus-frustration:

“You’re cold, rejecting, and selfish.”

“You’re needy, demanding, and selfish.”

The sense of rejection felt by the shut-out partner and the frustration of the interrupted partner is easily ameliorated with an attitude of connection. This is simply regarding yourself as connected to your partner, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. It fosters small, connective gestures throughout the day–brief touch, gentle eye-contact, embraces—or what Barbara Fredrickson calls “micro-moments of love.” In addition to making both partners happier, an attitude of connection reduces the impulse to interrupt and the frustration when interrupted.

Misunderstandings of Mental Processing

One partner processes bits of information by parsing them into categories. Flowers are in one category, clothing in another. They’re likely to have a declarative verbal style:

“This is the way it is.”

It’s easy to misinterpret this style as dogmatic or oversimplifying, even arrogant. In reality, it’s easier for categorizers to process information and tell things apart when they fit into categories. The categorizer is likely to marry a relational processor. The flowers might relate to the dress because both have purple in them. The relational partner is just as organized as the categorizer, but with a different logic, based more on similarities than differences.

Misunderstandings of Verbal Processing

One partner processes thoughts before expressing them. The other processes thoughts while expressing them. One might appear laconic and the other, gregarious.

Partners must accept and respect each other’s styles of mental and verbal processing. For example, one must be patient in silence; the other must be patient in a rush of words.

Different processing styles can greatly benefit a family. What the categorizer lacks is provided by the relational partner and vice versa. The partner who thinks while talking adds creativity and spontaneity. The partner who thinks before speaking adds thoughtful consideration. But the great advantage of diverse processing styles is lost when partners compete over which style will dominate. It’s not a question of one style being better than the other. Together, they’re better than either is alone.


Innate temperament determines, in large part, what it feels like to be you. It has many dimensions, but we’re most aware of varying levels of energy, anxiety, and calm.

Partners often experience anxiety from opposite triggers. What lowers anxiety in one raises it in the other. One partner focuses on details, while the other sees the “big picture.” A focus on details raises anxiety in the big-picture person; losing sight of details raises anxiety in the partner.

To lower anxiety, one partner is more organized, orderly, punctual, and rigid, all of which raises anxiety in the other. If it’s very important for you to be on time, you’re almost certainly married to someone prone to lateness.

“Opposites attract” turns out to be a myth: We’re attracted to moderate differences in temperament. We want potential partners to “fill our gaps.”

In courtship, highly organized people admire the spontaneity and ability to “think outside the box” of less organized lovers who, in turn, enjoy the stability and “feet-on-the-ground” qualities of potential partners.

The calm date: “I feel more alive with you!”

The intense date: “I can relax with you.”

While we’re not attracted to opposites, living together makes us more extreme in reaction to each other. Anxious partners worry that their less anxious lovers don’t worry enough:

“Why don’t they get all that can go wrong?”

Sensing the rise in household anxiety, less anxious partners try hard to calm things down:

“You should be more concerned! I have to worry for both of us!”

“You should learn to relax before we all have heart attacks!”

The subtext of their arguments:

“You have to be more like me! Think the way I do, feel the way I do, see the world the way I do.”

Instead of making specific behavior requests of each other, they fruitlessly try to change each other’s temperament. They try to change the very qualities that initially attracted them.

Core Vulnerabilities

Core vulnerability is the emotional state most painful to an individual, prompting the strongest and most rigid defenses. Under stress, we see the world through the lens of core vulnerabilities and make projections onto others based on our core vulnerabilities. Projections make it hard to see partners as complex persons with vulnerabilities of their own, independent of our projections.

For example, one partner has a core vulnerability of fear – anxiety about isolation, deprivation, and harm:

“No one cares, I’m unsafe, cut off from the things I need and love.”

Meanwhile, the other’s core vulnerability is shame—the dread of failure, inadequacy, exposure.

Core vulnerabilities are rarely experienced consciously. We most often see the defenses against them.

Common shame defenses:

  • Aggression (overt or passive)
  • Withdrawal (ignore, stonewall, distract, evade, shut-down)

Common fear defenses:

In intimate relationships, most conflict starts not with anyone doing anything wrong, but by the unconscious interaction of core vulnerabilities. Shame-defenses (anger, shut-down) automatically trigger fear-defenses (hypervigilance, control, criticism) and vice versa. Although it seems to each partner that the other is doing something bad, in reality, the dynamic is happening to both of them simultaneously. It spirals out of control when they blame their discomfort on each other.

But the same dynamic brings them closer when they understand and sympathize with their core vulnerabilities and when they support each other to overcome them.

Happy vs. Unhappy

In unhappy relationships, partners blame each other for their personal qualities. They see each other as opponents, and eventually as enemies.

In happy relationships, partners accept each other for who they are. They negotiate about specific behaviors but never about who they are. They see each other as teammates, with different aptitudes and strengths, cooperating to make a good life for the entire family.

Keys to Successful Relationships

  • Appreciate as many differences as you can, and tolerate the ones you can’t.
  • Request changes in behavior, not in personal qualities.
  • Cooperate to use your different strengths.
  • Improve, don’t blame.
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