Common Misunderstandings in Committed Relationships

Why can’t you be more like me?

Posted Mar 27, 2019

Perhaps the most frequent mistake partners make in committed relationships is assuming that events and behaviors have the same emotional meaning for both of them. At first, this misconception leads to bewilderment:

“How could he do that?”

“How could she think/feel that way?”

The eventual response is invidious:

“I wouldn’t react like that if it happened to me, so he/she is overreacting.”

“Unbelievable! He/she must have a personality disorder!”

The great irony of this misconception is that we’re most attracted to partners who differ from us. (A copy of yourself dressed up to look like an intimate partner would be incredibly boring.) Besides having different parents, intimate partners are likely to have different core vulnerabilities, different temperaments, and different support networks. They will certainly have different life experiences, different hormones or hormonal levels, and different trajectories of their emotional development.

All of these will cause partners to give different emotional meanings to the same events. These differences are a large part of what attracts lovers, expands their world-view, and enhances their experience of being alive. But in the second year of living together, couples begin quarreling about the same qualities that attracted them in the first place:

“I used to love that you were so energetic. But you don’t have to bounce off the damn walls. Just relax!”

“I used to love that you were so calm, but I never bargained for somebody dead. Get up and do something!”

Because most of my clients are referred by therapists, they come to me trapped in habits of hyper-resentment, high emotional reactivity, and contempt. The work then requires forming new habits of emotion regulation. They must replace "Toddler Brain" habits of blame, denial, and avoidance with "Adult Brain" habits of improving, appreciating, connecting, and protecting.

It's heartbreaking to realize that their negative habits of interacting were entirely preventable, simply by appreciating their differences and using them to enhance their relationships. Unhappy couples engage in power struggles to see which differences will dominate the relationship.

I’ve listed the psychological differences that, misunderstood and unchecked by understanding and compassion, eventually turn into chronic resentment and contempt:

1. Focus/refocus

2. Processing styles

3. Temperament

One partner is likely to focus better than the other. The heightened concentration requires shutting out distractions. The heightened focus of one partner can easily appear to be disregarding or rejecting to the other. That’s understandable since whatever we focus on becomes more important at that moment than what we’re not focused on.

To make matters worse, the concentrated mental energy required of focus funnels into frustration when the focus is interrupted. In general, the sharper your focus, the harder it is to refocus, due to frustration.

The partner’s sense of rejection and isolation can be ameliorated with frequent, small gestures of connection—a brief touch, eye contact, smile, embrace—when not focusing.

The focusing partner must also be aware that the frustration of refocusing is mostly physiological and that blaming it on the partner will make refocusing more difficult. If you enjoy the advantage of heightened focus, you must accept its cost: greater difficulty in refocusing.

Most importantly, use your focus on strengthening your connection with your partner. 

The focusing partner should try to do the above, but realistically he/she won’t do it all the time; most routine behaviors in relationships are habits that run on autopilot. When your partner seems to shut you out or get irritated when you interrupt, remember that he/she cannot refocus as easily as you. Look for times when your partner is available for connection. Avoid the attitude of “Connect when and where I want or not at all.”

2. Processing styles

Typically one partner processes information by parsing it into categories. For example, flowers are one category of things; clothes are a different category. He/she will likely have a declarative communication style—this is the way it is—which is not necessarily dogmatic or oversimplifying; it’s just easier for categorizers to understand information if it’s fit into a category.

The categorizer is likely to be in a committed relationship with someone who processes information through juxtaposition. The flowers might relate to the dress because both have purple in them.

Without understanding these differences, the categorizer will get impatient when a discussion of the flowers in the backyard turns into a point about a wardrobe choice and will likely judge the partner as “illogical," or worse. The juxtaposing partner will come to see the categorizer as prescriptive, narrow in their range of thinking, and probably too critical.  

Both partners need to see their differences as enhancing their relationship by expanding its processing capacity. Processing styles are different ways of looking at the world. In discussions, there are different ways of arriving at the truth, which, as John Ruskin put it, is polygonal.

The categorizer has to listen for subtleties in the discourse of the juxtaposed, who must, in turn, see a declarative style of speech as the partner's attempts to understand, rather than prescribing definition.

3. Temperament

The dimensions of temperament most likely to be exaggerated in committed relationships are intensity (energy level) and emotional tone (what it feels like to be you).  

Broadly speaking, people with high innate energy are more inclined to action than reflection and prefer some kind of external structure to guide their abundant energy. Those with lower energy levels tend to have a slower metabolism, be more thoughtful before acting, and prefer a looser external structure, so they can think about where to invest their more limited energy.

Clashes over emotional tone in committed relationships cluster around anxiety regulation. Specifically, what lowers anxiety in one partner raises it in the other. One partner focuses on details while the other attends to the big picture; one is more organized, orderly, punctual, and rigid than the other. For example, if it's very important for you to be on time, it's almost certain that you're married to someone who is often late.

"Opposites attract" turns out to be a myth. We are drawn to people with moderate differences in temperament, looking for potential partners who "fill in our gaps," as a popular movie character put it. For instance, highly organized people admire the spontaneity and tendency to "think outside the box" of their less organized dates, who, in turn, enjoy the stability and "feet-on-the-ground" qualities of their potential partners.

While not attracted to opposites, partners reacting to each other seem to become opposites. For instance, anxious partners are prone to worry. At least on an unconscious level, they worry that their less anxious partners aren't “worrying enough.” Less anxious partners will sense the rise in anxiety and try harder to relax and let things “roll off my back.” 

“You have to be more concerned about or lives.”

“You have to worry a lot less."

This is a variation of the classic argument where partners insist:

“You have to be more like me. See the world the way I do and feel the way I do.”

In viable relationships, partners must share responsibilities and labor more or less equally, but not in energy levels and emotional tone. They must understand that they are different and accept each other for who they are. Specific behaviors are negotiable; differences in focus, processing, temperament are not.