How Problems Begin in a Relationship

As a couples counselor I’m sometimes asked if there are common themes among the couples I treat.  I usually answer this question with a no because I believe every individual is unique, and that difference contributes to the special qualities of each couple.  No two couples are the same.

But lately I’ve begun to realize that couples with difficulties do share a common theme.  They all experience some sort of misunderstanding.  When people don’t feel understood they can feel left out.  Sometimes they get angry or experience isolation from their partner.  And if these misunderstandings just get swept under the rug without receiving appropriate attention, a couple may be headed toward difficulty.  Unresolved misunderstandings are the beginning signs that a relationship could use some help.

You might be saying to yourself, it can’t be that simple.  Misunderstandings can’t be the culprit alone, right?  You are right, it’s not just the misunderstandings, it’s what follows.  When one person feels like the other person did not understand or “get” them, they feel like they were not seen by their mate.  They feel like their partner who is supposed to know them doesn’t understand them.  This is the beginning of feeling misunderstood by the person who is your partner.  If the one who feels misunderstood continues to try and explain and this still doesn’t work, hurt feelings may result.  If those hurt feelings don’t get attention and understanding, they can build into something harder, like anger or resentment.

Feeling understood by your partner is not only essential for your relationship, it’s necessary for you as a person to feel good in the world.  Humans are hardwired to connect to other humans.  When we reach out and we can’t get that connection we feel let down, and sad.  This can even lead to withdrawal.

Maybe you’ve noticed your partner withdrawing after a disagreement.  He or she may be feeling misunderstood, and that can lead to feelings of loneliness and a belief that you are unlovable.  Not every disagreement will evoke these emotions, but chances are if you and your partner spend a lot of time misunderstanding each other it’s likely both of you feel pretty lousy about yourself and your relationship.   You might even feel angry at your mate because you believe he or she is supposed to “get” you no matter what.  And if your partner doesn’t get you, you might tell yourself it’s because they are just too stubborn to care.  Those thoughts lead to even more separation between two people.

Sometimes in relationships when couples aren’t getting what they need from their partners they can start to blame the other.  “It’s his fault.”  “It’s her fault.”  “He makes me feel…”  “She always complains that I…”  What drives the complaint is how we feel.  If those feelings had words they might sound like, “I’m unhappy here.  I wish you could just understand me.”

Some couples go years without ever feeling understood by their partner.  If this is your life it may mean you are essentially living alone inside yourself, without having an ally or best friend to share your thoughts and feelings with.  Imagine a relationship where you always feel understood, and you could share your thoughts and feelings with your best friend who wanted to share them. Now that makes a great relationship.  I believe everyone can learn new skills to communicate with their partner.  Like learning how to listen to the other person and how to ask for what you need, essential tools to avoid misunderstandings.

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