We’ve all been there: those brutal fights with your partner or spouse that lead to skyrocketing blood pressure and slammed doors. But before things get completely out of hand especially when you’re in a relationship or marriage involved, there’s actually one key question you both should ask: Are we both really fighting about the same thing?
This question, both obvious and not—when you’re in the thick of an argument, anyway—is a pretty simple exercise that could save couples plenty of heartache and takes only about two minutes, says psychologist Guy Winch, Ph.D, author of Emotional First Aid:Practical Strategies for Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts.
We’re going to guess your gut reaction is something like this: Of course we’re fighting about the same issue—that’s why we’re fighting! The trouble is, though, there’s a really good chance that you and your partner are neither discussing the same topic nor recognizing the discrepancy. And this kind of miscommunication is a common, but avoidable, source of relationship trouble.
According to Dr. Winch, many couples’ arguments are either about two entirely separate issues or involve one or both partners trying to read the mind of the other. (Unsuccessfully, because no one has ESP. Yet, at least.) Think about it: How many times have you jumped the gun and gotten defensive before any insults have actually been hurled? Couples often wind up waging arguments against their own wrong interpretation—rather than what’s really being said.
But those same defensive instincts are biological. “Arguments often trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response, which makes blood rush to our limbs but away from our heads—which is what we use to perceive the other person’s point of view and articulate things correctly,” says Winch. “Thus, our brains are functioning inefficiently—at least as far as rational arguing goes—which in turn contributes to miscommunication being more the norm than the exception.”
If couples not completely sold on the whole exercise as a means to lessen conflict, you’re not alone. “Couples are always skeptical at first when I tell them they are not even arguing about the same thing,” says Winch. “But once I have them do the exercise, couples always feel a little abashed.” After all, it’s easier to assume our partner’s to blame than to chalk it up to a misunderstanding, right?
So next time tensions start to rise, see if you (and your S.O.) can take a breather and identify the real guts of the argument—in all likelihood, a load of assumptions and miscommunication is to blame.
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