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Did You Really Hear What I Meant?

Crucial misunderstandings in conflict situations.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

In the four decades I’ve been working with couples, I’ve heard this phrase many times in multiply different ways. It’s most often uttered by frustrated partners in the middle of an argument. But left to accrue it will have a destructive effect on any intimate relationship.

Even couples who are able to listen more caringly and effectively to each other at other times, can become unfriendly adversaries in the middle of a dispute. The emotional intensity during those times “ups the ante.” Both partners begin taking things personally, jumping to conclusions, and protecting themselves at the expense of each other. Thoughts, emotions, and feelings blur into an amalgamation of discouraging and confusing interactions. Though there are probably more words written about couple communication skills than on any other relationship subject, many partners are not able to use them during their escalating conflicts. Though these teachings create more clarity authenticity, and the capability to listen more accurately, they often stop being effective when one or both partners feel threatened by the other. If intimate partners want to stay more effective during their times of stress, they need to add an additional skill. Communication is much more than what content people are discussing. It is much more how that content is delivered and received.

When couples move from friend to enemy during a conflict, they tend to focus on the words being said, and forget that they are responding much more powerfully to the way they are being said. Facial expressions, voice intonations, body language, rhythm, and proximity can change the simplest phrase into a threatening challenge. As couples realize their interactions are intensifying, they must hold on to what is happening between them so they do not lose their relationship bond during that time. Staying aware of how the other partner is emotionally experiencing while trying to solve a problem, while remaining in touch with self, is a set of skills that are harder to master, but critical to employ. In the early years of my career, I focused on the misunderstanding of words and the solutions of the problems my patients were enduring. It became clear to me that we had to find a way to get them to stay in each other’s hearts and minds while holding on to what they wanted to resolve.

To make that more likely to happen, I spend several years videotaping some of my couples as they were engaging in conflict interactions. The goal is to help them and me better separate out the verbal content of what they are arguing about, from how they were actually experiencing the other’s internal state when they were arguing. The process was simple and remarkably effective. After a taped conflict, we would first watch the video with the sound off. This helped them to see their facial expressions and body language change as their fight intensified. Then we would watch it again with the audio added. It was crystal clear how their voice intonations added fuel to the fire. Some of my couples opted to go even further. They took the time to transcribe the actual dialogue between them as if it were a written script. Then they would watch the video as they concurrently read the words and actions. The results were remarkable.

Every word a person expresses is driven by many variables. To truly understand and identify with the other partner’s inner state, especially during conflict, both must keep in mind a host of contributing factors: their own and their partner’s history, mood, fears, sorrows, and needs in each moment. Partners who are able to do that during negative interactions do them simultaneously. They stay fully aware of the other’s current experience while staying in touch with their own at the same time. Mastering this dance of mutual inner experience can be a complicated and perilous dance for many, but those who master it experience a very different kind of transformation. Every accomplishment a couple makes that takes them closer to this kind of interaction changes their relationship positively.

Here are six tools that may help. The First Tool: Understanding the Family of Origin Script You were born into an already existing environment. From that moment, you began learning to adapt and accommodate to what existed before you came into the picture. To stay alive and safe, you needed to internalize the actions and emotional responses of others upon who you depended to survive. Think of the beginning of your life as a role in an already-written Broadway play where someone else pre-created your role. That is how all of us begin our lives. We come into this set of expectations and learn how to do and say what is will keep us secure. Initially, we are too dependent to question what is asked of us, or why. But as we experience the world outside of that environment, we begin to question not only what we were taught, but also the legitimacy of those who taught us.

As we navigated successive relationships and accumulate new information, most of us learn what worked and what did not, trying to learn from those experiences to become more successful relationship partners. We try to leave dysfunctional behaviors behind and embrace those we know work better. Sadly, during intense conflict interactions, it is all too easy for partners to react as if they were re-experiencing past relationships. If those were from early childhood, they are embedded and often unconscious. If arguments trigger those earlier experiences, people are more likely to forget who we are talking to in the present and begin responding as if he or she was someone from our past. When partners realize they have now begun talking “at” each other as if they were speaking from their dysfunctional original childhood script, they can remember to come back into the present moment and act more effectively.

The Second Tool: Recognizing Trauma Triggers When couples are calm and able to stay open to one another’s full presence, they can clearly see when the other’s responses seem exaggerated and out of proportion to the situation at hand. A question or statement that might typically be answered calmly, without a strong emotional reaction, is suddenly responded to with alarming reactivity. The person behaving in a seemingly exaggerated way appears to be much more threatened and reactive than he or she would normally be. When either partner senses that the response is not how the other would typically respond, he or she can assume that a prior trauma has been activated by what is going on. If the other partners can understand what is happening and know they did not mean to activate that pain, they can respond with non-threatening inquiry and compassion. Couples who want to avoid reacting to each other’s trauma-triggered responses can help one another calm down and sort out the past from the present. They search together for what might be driving those extreme responses, and how they might recognize and respond differently in the future.

The Third Tool: Holding Vulnerable Confessions Sacred Expressions of authentic, naked thoughts and feelings are welcomed in relationships where the partners feel safe with each other. Many couples feel that security at the beginning of a new relationship and respond to those “vulnerable confessions” from a place of compassion and acceptance. They may, in those early relationship moments, reciprocally share parts of their histories that maybe are hard to reveal and embarrassing to recall. Most couples honor those revelations and keep them holy. They know to never to bring them up in a hurtful way. Holding to those commitments keeps the door open for more depth in future situations and forms one of the crucial foundations of trust in any intimate relationships.

Sadly, I’ve seen some partners betray those vows during a heated conflict. They might say things like, “You told me that every guy in your life has used you. That’s why you're accusing me now when I’m not.” Or, “You told me that your coach molested you. Is that why you can’t relate to me sexually anymore?” The result of using shared vulnerabilities to hurt a partner is always a betrayal, but during a fight is disastrous. Doing so often causes long-lasting and irreparable damage. Knowing when and where to bring up a past vulnerable emotional experience can also give partners the power to help each other heal. “Honey, this probably reminds you of when you felt abandoned by your dad when you were so small. I would never do that to you.” Or, “Remember, babe, you are scared of the dark for damn good reason. I’m here.” The Fourth Tool: Inquiring Before Assuming or Judging Researchers agree that there are six basic negative human emotions, five of which are negative. Those are the most likely to appear during a dispute. Fear, anger, surprise, disgust, or sadness are all emotional responses that protect a person from the fear of annihilation. Sadly, when either partner feels emotionally or physically endangered by the other, they are more likely to express those negative emotions. That likelihood is why escalating conflict brings out the worst in couples. The need to defend an imagined predator creates emotional blindness. As each partner is less and less able to see the other as trustworthy, he or she will fight only for self, no matter what cost to the relationship. Steeped in fear, partners-turned-enemies lose the ability to accurately remember who the other person is. In that state, inquiry dies and is replaced by assumption, judgment, and dismissal. Words are expressed without thought of outcome or understanding. Emotions run wild, and misunderstandings escalate. Phrases can become unintelligible and the meanings behind them and actions totally obscured.

When upset partners express any or all of the negative emotions during a battle, and pair them with voice intonation, facial expression, and body language, their words and actions can become destructive missiles that do far more damage than often intended. In the heat of distress, then, most people do not take the time to truly understand what the other partner intends or means and only hears what supports what they already have judged to be happening. The misunderstandings that happen from these hapless interactions of incorrect assumptions and predictable misunderstandings continue to accrue over time and sabotage any hope for better communication in the future.

The Fifth Tool: Recognizing Differences in Rhythm The rhythmic dance of successful flowing communication has three necessary crucial elements: 1) The partners have to respond with the same cadence. 2) Both must carefully monitor and share the other’s movements. 3) They must hear a common, mutual word-song.

In the more than four decades that I’ve been working with couples, I’ve watched their normally healthier communication rhythm become distorted as they enter into and escalate negative interactions. What may once have been an easy exchange of words, movements, thoughts, and feelings when they were compatible, can rapidly change into mutual battering as conflict escalate. When partners are in positive tune with each other, they move in and out of interaction relatively easily. When, instead, they become threatened and retaliatory, those seemingly automatic and comfortable connections can rapidly disappear. Some partners, for instance, who would normally listen and match cadences during an exchange. now turn and walk away, raising their hands in the air as a physical expression of dismissal. I’ve seen so many couples both begin to talk at the same time, increasing both their tempo and sound as they drown one another out. I’ve often witnessed people who typically stay open to new data, pull in and shut down on the other end of a partner who interrupts and over-talks them. The result of different rhythms can look very much like gears clashing. Rather than respecting and joining the ebb and flow of listening and taking the time to ensure they understand, they become an emotional riptide. Both partners now are emotionally butting up against one another, pushing back to avoid expected erasure or invalidation. The Sixth Tool: The Ability to Accurately and Define Words and Terms Partners can only interpret what their other partners are feeling by observing how they express them. Verbal language can help them to clarify what those thoughts and feelings truly mean. Without an accurate understanding of each other’s intended meaning, rather than what they think they’ve heard, no reliable connection can happen. People also change over time. What a person might mean by a word or phrase at one time can become very different as life experiences change them. That makes it crucial that intimate partners, no matter how long they’ve known each other, continue to re-check what words and phrases mean to each. Those who keep their communication alive and current, continually check each other out to make sure that they are interpreting what their partners mean in the present context. For example, any word in a phrase can be interpreted differently just by the accent and pronunciation of it. If that word is part of a barrage of sentences, often overlapping and transforming with sounds, body language, rhythm, touch, and the histories that proceed them, they are highly susceptible to being misinterpreted. During a dispute, most partners also talk in endless sentences uttered in urgency or under threat. They may also be repeated and rehashed interactions from the past. Some words and actions are not even thought out, but merely thrown out to deflect or buy time.

Here is a profound example:

I once worked with a couple who came from very different cultural and economic backgrounds but were deeply in love. In one of our sessions, he said something a little sarcastic to her and she responded with “That is so brutal.” “I’m fucking brutal? Brutal?” He lost it, pacing the floor with his fists clutched. “I am not brutal. I have never been brutal. If you use really feel that way about me, this relationship is over.”

She was totally shocked. I asked them to take a breath and just define how each thought that word meant. She said, “It’s when you say something that makes me feel bad as if you don’t even care how I feel when you say it.” His response led them both to tears. “I’ve never told you much about my background. I was beaten every day of my life. I went days without food. I missed most of school because I didn’t want anyone to see the bruises and take me away. My childhood was brutal. You’ve been raised with privilege. I didn’t think you would ever understand.” If only one word could have led to a disaster of misunderstanding, think of long sentences hurled without thought of a response. Think of how many words, phrases, voice intonations, body gestures, rhythms, and touch would be defined differently by two partners at any moment in time. Unexplored and taken personally, they are the often-unintended fallouts of communication failure. If any expression of thought, feelings, or behaviors activates an exaggerated defensive response in the other partner, the first thing both must do is to explore the intended meaning of that communication and give each other examples to help the other understand its true meaning.

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If you and your partner can help each other understand these crucial nuances that could deflect, dismember, and destroy your capability to truly get what it's like to be each other, you can be ready to listen more deeply when the communication between you begins to falter. Remembering how different you may feel and think inside if you were truly able to put yourself into the other’s experience of you. If you can, it will help you understand how complicated these matrices can be. The good news is that they can be navigated and mastered. Hopefully, you can use these past few guideposts to help you light the way. Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you’ll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded “honeymoon is over” phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring.

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