When in a relationship, we need to believe that we understand each other, that our partner is aware of what we’re going through, and that we are supported. If they can’t get their head around what we’re experiencing, or if they implicitly stigmatise our emotions as disproportionate, in time we feel distanced—even less loved. Depending on our personality type and attachment style, this can lead to us pulling away or becoming more easily combative with them.
So when we trust that our partner is properly perceiving our thoughts, we feel closer to them, more loved—and this in turn prompts us to act more lovingly. We’re more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt, forgive them for minor transgressions—and be more attentive to their feelings, their needs.
But how accurate are our assumptions that our partner understands our emotions? If our assumptions are out of kilter, how can we render them more realistic? And moreover, what are the consequences of clinging to an inaccurate conclusion about how our partner is reading us?
Are you correctly inferring how your partner truly sees you?
In brand-new research from McGill University, 189 couples were prompted to engage in three discussions: about a topic of their choice, a recurring relationship conflict, and something positive in their relationship. After each conversation, participants reported their emotions—but also what they believed their partners’ emotions to be, as well as what they thought their partners’ impressions of their emotions were. At these intervals they also completed momentary relationship satisfaction surveys, reporting how positive, happy, and close to their partners they felt right then and there.
People were quite accurate in knowing how their partners saw their emotions when discussing random topics or positive aspects of their relationships. They also reported higher momentary relationship quality when they sensed their significant other was forming positive impressions of their emotions and considering their emotional responses to be normative.
But when discussing conflict, participants were less likely to accurately sense that their partners considered their emotions to be proportionate. Self-reported relationship quality dipped in these fleeting moments as people believed that their partners were misperceiving their emotions or judging them to be atypical. What’s more, when someone felt judged or inaccurately read, their partner also experienced a reduction in momentary relationship quality. This might be because feeling misread leads to defensive or otherwise unconstructive behaviour.
How can you improve your perception in your relationship?
When emotions run high, our perception of reality becomes clouded. That’s because stress triggers our nervous system to kick into survival mode, which heightens our perception of danger. Even neutral stimuli, such as our partner’s silence or furrowed brow, can be perceived as potentially threatening when we’re in this state. Emotionally primed for the worst, it’s then all too easy to jump to conclusions and assume our partner has nefarious intentions. Then we might lash out, or dismiss them, or withhold information.
To prevent yourself from causing unnecessary damage to the relationship by saying something harsh and regrettable in the midst of a row, try to take yourself out of the moment and remember that you might not be accurately perceiving what your partner is thinking or feeling about you. When we’re upset we’re prone to overestimating threats, seeing danger where it doesn’t exist. Pause, take a breath, or even step away from the situation to gather yourself, calm down, and activate rational thought. These actions regulate your nervous system, returning you from survival mode to a calmer state, allowing for clearer perception and kinder, more constructive communication.
Another helpful communication tool is being totally honest with how you feel in the moment. If you perceive that your partner is judging you, tell them how that’s making you feel. They might be baffled, even offended. But by avoiding accusatory language in favour of gentler bids for reassurance, you increase the likelihood they’ll really hear you.
Use I statements: “I might not be thinking clearly right now. I’m just worried you’re thinking badly of me.” By centring the problem around your own perception, you avoid blaming or accusing your partner unnecessarily, which hopefully paves the way toward an amicable resolution. You can follow up by asking them to clarify their thoughts: “Can you help me understand what you’re thinking about what I just said?” Of course, your partner’s emotions may well be clouding their perceptions too, impeding their ability to reassure you. If instead they shame you or get angry, you have every right to articulate that you’re hurt by that. Set a firm boundary if it continues.
We all make mistakes. The trick is to be self-aware.
Communication is tough in a relationship—but as long as it’s undergirded by good intentions, in time hopefully the two of you can better understand one another’s perceptions, and in so doing grow closer and more loving than ever. Accept that your judgement—and theirs—will be clouded from time to time. You’re both only angry and upset because you care and want to make this work. As long as you reassure one another that you only want what’s best for them and that you’re trying your hardest to understand their point of view, you can forge a path to a happier, more wholesome partnership.
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