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Am I Too Sensitive or Are You Just Mean?

Updated: Jun 12

In a relationship, words and phrases can unintentionally trigger pain.

The following is a dialogue between two people that may feel eerily familiar to you. That is because we have all ended up in damaging disagreements caused by the misunderstanding of a word or phrase that may be misconstrued because of the difference in reaction that each person has to it.

In this case, the male partner grew up abused, neglected, and terribly poor. He fought to get to the top of his law firm on the East Coast. The female partner grew up pampered and safe, naïve, and trusting. They began this fight in front of me.

She: (tearing up) “You are so brutal. You say things that hurt my feelings, and you don’t care.”He: (angry) “Don’t you ever call me brutal. You have no idea what that even means. I’m honest. I’m authentic. I may be direct. I am not brutal. Never call me that again.”She: “But you’re mean, and your words are like knives, and you never say you’re sorry. You tell me you love me, but you break my heart over and over. How can I believe you?”He: “I do everything in the world for you. I protect you. I have your back. I fight your battles. I keep you safe. If that’s not love, what the hell do you think it is?”She: (crying). "You are yelling at me right now. You might protect me from others, but not from you. You are mean."He: “Maybe you should stop being so damn sensitive.”

It went on for a while. Then, silence. They didn’t know how to reconnect because they couldn’t see how their dramatically different upbringings were affecting the way each meant or heard a word or phrase differently. He was fiercely passionate and unwilling to endure any criticism of who he had become. She was unable to understand what it took for him to become the man he was. She saw love as safety. He saw it as total devotion.

In my work with couples over the last half-century, I have seen these kinds of misunderstandings repeatedly. I’ve watched simple words, meant in different ways than they were received, damage relationships that might otherwise have thrived. Had the partners taken the time to explore what each means by how they speak and act rather than taking those behaviors personally and making incorrect assumptions based on them, they might have interpreted them differently.

Here are four helpful explorations that can help you and your partner avoid these unnecessary scarring interactions that were not intended to harm in the way they did. You have the power to alter the way you share who you are with another without losing your authenticity or integrity. You just need to recognize when and how you are accidentally participating.

1. Define and Clarify the Words You’ve Chosen. I have seen terrible disputes emerge when one partner perceives a word or phrase in a way it was not intended. If you have a very strong reaction to something your partner says, first ask yourself how old you feel. This will determine if there is trauma driving that response and at what age it might have occurred.

Then, ask your partner how he or she defines that word or phrase and what it means to them. For example, there are more than 50 definitions for the word “anger.” If your partner says they're angry, are they just irritated, really enraged, or something in between? Make a thesaurus a friend to help you clarify together.

2. Share Words and Phrases That Upset You From Your Past and Explain Why. If your partner knows what facial expressions, body language, voice tones, rhythm, and touch have been part of what has hurt you in the past, they now have tools to avoid hurting you in the same way in the present. Forget these common phrases that can trigger traumas from the past, like, “You’re just like your mother,” “You talk to me as if I were a child,” or “You’re having a tantrum, just grow up.”

You need to tell your partner how certain words and actions trigger a reaction in you that your rational mind tells you is too strong or off-point, but your emotional response feels right and legitimate. The more you know about each other that way, the easier it will be to separate your past from your current experience. Talk “to” each other rather than “at” each other.

3. Learn How to Share Your Thoughts and Feelings in Ways That Do Not Trigger. When you know and understand the ways your partner may intensely react to certain words you use to communicate, you can change the way you present what you need to share without withholding your own feelings or actions. For instance, if your partner, as a child, had to witness abusive behaviors between their parents, you will know that anything you say that borders on a similarly abusive style might render your partner immobilized, temporarily powerless to continue interacting with you.

4. Acknowledge What Your Partner Heard No Matter What You Intended. If your partner appears to be responding irrationally to something you’ve said or done, never say you didn’t do that. Saying that your partner is wrong to feel what they do will fuel their reaction. Own what you did say or do and ask your partner what their experience is on the other end, even if you never intended them to feel that way. Help them identify what you said that brought that reaction.

Be compassionate and supportive without the need to change their reaction. When your partner calms down and, hopefully, realizes they are reacting more strongly than the situation called for, plan together how you can use a different communication style in the future to share how you think and feel that will not trigger them.

Choose Dr. Randi Gunther a Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor who truly understands the complexities of human connection.

Reach out to Dr. Randi today and take the first step toward a brighter, more fulfilling future together.

Dr. Gunther is available by Zoom or Facetime


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