In my 15 years of seeing individuals and couples in therapy, I’ve heard just about every version of argument there is. Whether it’s a blowup that started with the laundry not being folded or a walk out due to a direct insult, I’ve heard it all. I’ve found there’s a common theme in all of these miscommunications: assuming. Once we get comfortable with someone and have been with them long enough, we naturally tend to figure out some of their patterns of thinking, behavior, and communication. Although this can be helpful in meeting their needs and being more efficient, assuming can also be devastating to relationships. What if you’re wrong and you didn’t stop to check? Then you might be responding to or arguing with a point that the other person never even imagined.
It’s also important to remember that we all come into relationships and arguments pre-loaded with our own baggage and insecurities. This means you’re not just making assumptions based on your observations of your partner, but you’re also seeing everything through your own biased filter. Ever heard the phrase “you see what you want to see”? Basically if you’re convinced there’s a way your partner (or perhaps people in general) talk or behave toward you, then ironically this is what you’re likely to experience, whether it’s objectively occurring or not. For example, if you believe that no one could ever truly love you because you yourself don’t believe you’re truly worthy of being loved, then you’ll consciously or subconsciously always be looking for signs that those around you do not in fact love you. Even if you see 10 signs of love for every 1 wrong, you’ll focus on the wrongdoing and dismiss the love. See how this could be dangerous in combination with our natural tendency to assume?
Luckily I’ve had 15 years and plenty of training on how to thwart these negative patterns! I have four quick (but not easy) steps to avoid falling into the assumption trap:
1) Check assumptions – The moment you find yourself assuming your partner is saying something hurtful toward or negative about you, ask before attacking! It also helps if you do this in a curious way (What did you mean when you said X?) versus defensive (So you’re saying that I’m an idiot?). What if they had a perfectly harmless thought and just expressed it poorly? Good thing you checked!
2) Lead with feelings – This is by far the hardest step because it requires the toughest thing to do in this world – being vulnerable. Leading with how their comment made you feel is far “weaker” position than lashing out and hurting them back. However, I struggle to think of a time when attacking back has ever led to positive resolution. Instead use a feeling to describe your reaction to their comment. If your partner truly cares about you, sharing how you’re hurt is far more likely to get a loving response.
3) Address hurt feelings – If your partner has done step 2 and expressed hurt feelings the last thing you want to do is argue feelings with facts. The temptation is to try and convince them why they shouldn’t feel hurt and why you’re not a bad person/partner, but all that does is serve to invalidate their reactive feeling. Instead accept that this is how they feel and address that feeling.
4) Meta-communicate – This is a fancy term for communicating about communicating (Did I just blow your mind?). In other words, talk about where the miscommunication occurred and how. Discuss how you could have gotten the same point across without hurting the other person’s feelings. If the communication went poorly, talk about how you can better handle a similar miscommunication in the future without it leading to a fight.
There are many other communication skills, but these 4 will have you well on your way to avoiding assumptions. For more help fine-tuning your relationship communication, please reach out to a couples therapist near you. They are an invaluable resource and are there to help strengthen your relationship both in quality and longevity.