How many times have you had that talk, the one where your partner hurts your feelings, you retreat. And when you finally talk about it and explain why you were hurt, your partner doesn’t remember it the same way?
As a clinical therapist in the Chicago area, I hear stories on a regular basis where feelings are hurt, people are rejected, but the person doing the hurting does not even realize it.
Miscommunication leads to arguments
Take for example the common scenario where your spouse has been distant. You internalize it that he/she is angry with you, annoyed with you, dissatisfied with you. You even have proof. He/she has been short-tempered, and dismissive. So what do you do? You give him/her space. You retreat. You don’t want to continue to bother him/her.
When your partner notices you are acting differently, you might say “Well, you are mad at me and I don’t even know what I did!”. And your partner may become defensive, saying “I am mad??!! You are the one acting all crabby”… and of course it escalates and now you are fighting.
When you finally circle back to what you are actually arguing about, you might learn that work is stressful, or an argument with someone else is on their mind, or they have not been sleeping well. But before you get to that point, there are a lot of accusations hurled. “YOU were ignoring me when I was trying to talk to you!” “YOU called me a (jerk/witch/etc) when I asked what was wrong!” “YOU said I was annoying you when I tried to talk to you!”.
Ask for clarification
Our brain has this really convenient habit of filling in details. We see body language and hear a tone of voice, and we soon have an entire story based on a couple details. Sometimes it is a really helpful social skill. Other times, it is a recipe for disaster.
One thing I have learned when working with couples is that you can never clarify too much. Asking what your partner meant and how he/she meant it is crucial information before you respond, especially if you are responding emotionally.
Asking that question, however, requires trust and vulnerability. Allowing someone to know that they affect you is vulnerable. It will get you a honest, good-intentioned answer. Communicating your own needs is really hard, even with your spouse. Communicating in a way that your partner hears you accurately and genuinely… that takes practice. But with practice comes success.