One thing that I have often hear from my clients is that it is helpful when I’m teaching them a new concept or exercise that I give examples of these when it applies in my own relationship. So, I thought why not share with all of you out there because maybe it will help you too.
Just like every couple my husband Curtis and I have difficult issues we have to learn to navigate some of them are big, some of them are small and can even feeling petty at times. I feel like in same ways as a couple’s therapist I have an advantage over other people in a partnership because I’m constantly working with couples and talking about a number of core issues that come up in every relationship. This keeps those issues and the skills I teach to help my clients fresh in my mind.
My work requires me to continue to learn how to help others navigate through these issues that are so important and at times seem so simple but are often not easy to navigate on our own. What’s great for me is while I’m learning these tools, I get to apply them to my own relationship. A few examples are, the willingness and ability to give your partner the benefit of the doubt, to depersonalize certain things that your partner does that feel bad, to give appreciation and gratitude, to keep trust strong and to know when it is being affected in small ways, to slow down going into assumptions about what your partner means when they do or say something that feels crappy. These can sound like pretty simple concepts and most of us when we are calm and in a good place would say “Yes of course I want to do that…of course I want to give my partner the benefit of the doubt and believe that they are not out to get me” but in these moments that our partner hits on a pain point of ours we can quickly lose sight of this and it is not easy to hold to these goals.
Let me give you an example of a time I was faced with something that could have gone either way. About a year ago, I was working in my home office and my husband walked by and said “Hey just so you know I cleaned out the fridge and threw away the left overs” I immediately felt blamed and just knew he was mad at me. Now you might be thinking what is the big deal about that statement. Yet the back ground is that this has been a sore point in our relationship, Curtis doesn’t like when he feels we are wasting food. Of course, neither do I, the issue is not that we disagree on this issue but in how it has been communicated in the past. In previous conversations Curtis would use language that I felt judged by and it often felt like he was blaming me when the waste would happen.
So, when he walked by and made this comment and triggered that blamed feeling in me, I physically felt the blow so I readied for battle. My internal dialogue went something like this “How dare he blame me… I am not the only one eating or not eating the food…its his fault too. What a jerk! I don’t walk around pointing out all the things he does…I will now. I am just sitting here trying to work and he feels the need to point this out. He doesn’t even appreciate how hard I am working…he just does appreciate me at all….” It went on and it was just this monologue of anger. Let me tell you I was ready to go for it with him…I was ready to rain down the wrath of a fiery, Italian woman on him. He should have been scared and he didn’t even know it. Yet I stopped myself, took a breath and thought “You know maybe I am wrong. Let me ask him before I react.
He walks back by my office door and I stopped him and here is that conversation
Me: “Hey are you upset about the food? Are you mad at me?”
Curtis: (looking at me like I had grown a second head) “No…I just wanted to let you know I had done it incase you were thinking you needed to.”
Me: “Oh ok. Thank you. What happened in me is that I was worried and I assumed you were upset since it has been an issue in the past.”
Curtis: “Nope, not at all”
He then went on his way and I went back to work. Now an important point to note here is when he told me no I believed him but it didn’t take away the feeling of that initial gut punch of feeling blamed. It took a little time for that feeling to dissipate and I dealt with it on my own by just breathing and refocusing on work and reminding myself of his answer. Once the initial feeling went away, I felt really good because that conversation could have gone much different and frankly has in the past. If I would have just reacted to my assumption about his motives and laid into him in anger it would have turned into a fight that would have left him feeling unseen, unappreciated and attacked especially since he was just trying to do something helpful. It would have left both of us hurt and in pain.
Assumptions are tricky little trouble makers. An assumption is believing something is true without proof. What happens when we make assumptions about the intentions behind our partner’s actions or words? What happens when those assumptions are to believe the worse about them? What would that do to our relationship and connection?
What I tell my clients is, if your partner does or says something and you make an assumption and you don’t clarify with your partner then you are no long in a relationship with that person you are in a relationship with that assumption. Let me state that again, if you make an assumption about your partner and you do not clarify it you are no longer in a relationship with your partner you are in a relationship with that assumption.
In the situation I explained above my assumption was that Curtis was blaming me and mad, if I would have gone with that and not clarified his true intentions, it would have caused hurt and pain in both of us. I would have no longer been in that conversation or relationship with my husband, I would have been in it with my assumption. Regardless of whether I lashed out or pulled away, if I believed the assumption, it would have fractured our connection.
Think about it like this, if you make an assumption then it becomes a filter everything your partner does or says after that will be experienced through that filter. The longer that goes on the more potentially false information you will be holding on to and the harder it will be to return to the true conversation, interaction or relationship.
Have you ever done this? Believed some about your partner, gone into a defensive state and then later find out you misunderstood…how did it go for you? Did it increase or decrease connection? How much time was lost by traveling down the assumption path?
Think about this scenario, if you were driving to a location and you thought you knew where you were going but then the scenery started to look wrong would you just keep driving and assume you will make it there even if you aren’t sure about the direction? Or would you pull over check GPS, a map or ask someone? I would be willing to bet most of us would stop and figure out if we are going the wrong direction and we would probably do it sooner than later because the longer you go the wrong way the longer it will take you to get to the original destination.
So why not do that in your relationship? Interactions and conversations with a partner are like traveling with them, if you aren’t sure about the direction they are taking you, stop and ask so that you can know you are tracking with them. Again, to use my interaction with Curtis, he was traveling to the land of “being kind and helping me” and my assumption wanted me to go to the kingdom of “HOW DARE YOU” …2 totally different destinations same conversation. When I stopped and clarified his direction, I was able to adjust mine it was a much better trip.
Now I know what some of you are may be thinking, what if you stop and clarify and you find out it is the worst-case scenario is true? Your partner is blaming you, mad at you, not feeling as attracted to you, etc.…OUCH! It sucks to hear these painful things and yet to have truly good communication in a relationship you will have to hear things that sting sometimes. There is no way around that if you want honest, open communication. The important point here is that you get to have those conversations in a different way now. There are a few blogs posted that give you some steps to how to start the process of having more open and curious conversations. How to have open, honest conversations in your relationship and We Can’t Communicate: How To Change Pain Into Connection.
Yet for today we are going with your assumption is wrong. What happens if they are not the thing you fear? What if they are trying to communication something entirely different and it happens to hit a pain point of yours? So, you react and you go down that path…it will be really painful for both of you. Often times there are these moments that happen when we miss our opportunity to not go into the assumption or not become reactive.
Sometimes they are smaller and they don’t take as long to clear up and recover from. However, what I see show up in my office is couples that have made certain assumptions about each other, about what certain behavior means and they have gone with that assumption for days, weeks, months and even years. What this means is that they have been interacting and reacting to their partner base on false beliefs and distorted filters. To untangle those assumptions from what their partner does really feel, believe or want is such a difficult process for most people. Because even after there is clarification the longer a misbelief about a partner’s feelings or intentions are held the harder it is for the emotional brain to let go, even if there is an intellectual shift.
If you want to make a quick change in your relationship right now, I challenge you to try to S.A.C the assumptions. The next time your partner does or says something and you feel a gut reaction and urge to jump to the “how dare they”, “how could they”, “Why don’t they” trap…before you walk hand in hand down the road with that negative assumption of your partner and your relationship and start reacting and living life and your relationship based on something that you don’t know is true or not. Do these steps:
Here is how to SAC the assumptions:
- Stop! Don’t blindly go with the feeling. Slow down the reactions, take a deep breath and acknowledge you may be wrong. You might be misunderstanding something.
- Ask! Check in with your partner about what they meant. It can be as simple as “are you mad, because you tone sounds kinda angry?” or “Hey that felt a bit critical, did you mean it to?” or “We haven’t been spending time together, are you upset at me?”
- Clarify! Take it one stop beyond the ask and let your partner know what happened in you “When I heard your quick reply, I thought you were mad because that is a tone that is really hard for me. Thanks for clarifying.” Or “It seems like you have been gone a lot and what has been happening in me is that you don’t want to spend time with me. Can we talk about this more?”
This is a concept I teach to my clients and I really work to practice in my own relationship; it seems simple and obvious but it is not easy to do in the moment. Yet the more you are able to do these 3 steps and push yourself, the strong the muscle will get
Again, if your assumption is right, that is ok, its hard and it might hurt, but its ok because then you know what kind of conversation you need to have with them and you can figure out if need help to navigate it.
Here’s the bottom line, no matter what you don’t want to be in a relationship or a conversation with an assumption; it is a very lonely place. There is no connection, no affection, and no meaningful dialogue.
As always, if you find that you have a desire for open, honest and curious communication but you need more direction and guidance reach out to us. We can help.
Stacy Lee, LMFT, has been employed at The Couples Institute in Menlo Park, CA, since 2008. She has trained with relationship experts Ellyn Bader, Ph.D and Peter Pearson, Ph.D. to provide innovative tools to couples and individuals. In 2019, Stacy became the Clinical Director of the institute’s therapy services. She is passionate about providing people with quality resources which includes building a network of skilled therapists to reach more couples and individuals.