Dear Dr. Chani,
Sometimes I feel that my wife and I are in different worlds. When we have a disagreement, we try to have a conversation where each of us explains why we are bothered. When my wife tells me why she is upset, I try very hard to listen to her and understand her point of view. I see myself as doing a much better job than most spouses do (I don’t know for certain, but that is how I feel.)
At the same time, it is so difficult to hear her explanation. As I listen, I also make mental notes of how she is making mistakes and remembering the story incorrectly. I try very hard to focus on her thoughts and feelings, but it is frustrating when she simply states the events incorrectly. I find it really hard to empathize with her or spend energy seeing where I was wrong when she remembers the whole situation in a distorted way. It makes me feel distant from her.
Sometimes I feel that if someone could correct her vision, we would have an even better relationship. Can you help me?
You are struggling with a very fundamental issue in your relationship. You try very hard to listen to why your wife is upset at you. Yet you are troubled that part of the reason that she is upset is that she did not get what happened. Either she misunderstood the situation or she is remembering it incorrectly. You find it very hard to listen to her describe how she feels when it is based on mistaken assumptions. If only you could correct her memory then you would help her feel better and not be so upset at you!
I imagine that it would be really gratifying to have your spouse say something like, “You are right honey. I totally misread the situation. I am really happy that you set me straight.” You would feel validated, understood, and vindicated.
Yet you have seen from your experiences that if you do try to correct your wife, it does not help your conversation. What happens instead? When you describe where she went wrong so that you can enlighten her, it is like you are waving a big red flag saying, “I was not genuinely paying attention to you anyway. I was mostly thinking about correcting your errors.”
She also might get the impression that you were not really understanding her emotions because you felt that they were all based on erroneous assumptions.
Here are three points you can keep in mind to facilitate your conversations after a disagreement: You are right that your wife has a distorted perception of what happened.
Point #1: Her perception is wound up with her feelings. So is your memory. It is true for both of you. When you are in a disagreement, your feelings color or rewrite history. Even if you both experienced the same situation, your emotions will emphasize certain things, and disregard others. You will both emerge with different descriptions of the same events. It can be disingenuous to present your version of history as the truth when both of you are remembering your own understanding of what happened. In a relationship one might say that there are three versions of what occurred: the husband’s version, the wife’s version, and reality. Striving to correct her version might not be fair, because yours is not precise either.
Point #2: Choose to see yourselves as a team. If you and your wife would be on different sides in a debating match, it might be productive to correct her mistaken impressions and argue for your version of the truth. Yet, if you see yourselves as a team, you will be motivated to make each other feel better. As a team, does it make sense to invest your energy into correcting your spouse’s memory of what happened? It would benefit your team more to empathize with your wife’s feelings. Let’s say that you are right and your wife is wrong. It might be akin to a pain you have in your arm. Is it helpful for your leg to argue that it does not feel the pain, so it is not real? If your arm is hurting, your entire body can take ibuprofen. Similarly, if one of you on the team is bothered, it is better to address that rather than argue about why it is so.
Point #3: When you have a discussion after a disagreement, clarifying what actually occurred should not be your focus. Emotions flow because of things that once happened. But once the emotions are there, correcting the facts will have little impact. The bad feelings will still remain even if the facts are revised. Negative emotions can be like the rain in a storm. Even after the rain stops and the clouds clear, the ground is still wet. The best way for the ground to dry is for the sun and its beautiful rays to warm the earth. Similarly, the best cure for the negative feelings is for you to focus on understanding your wife’s feelings, not the objective facts. Try to see the situation from her point of view. Summarize for her how she experienced the events and the emotions it created. This way, she knows you listened to her. After she knows you understood her point of view, express your perspective so that she can hear your feelings. Putting yourself in each other’s shoes will generate warm feelings between you and draw you closer to one another.
When you try to understand your wife’s emotions rather than correct her reality, you will move toward deeper conversations that increase your emotional connection to one another. In this way, you can turn a disagreement into an opportunity to grow closer to your spouse, just as you desire.
Chani Maybruch is a social psychologist and relationship coach, specializing in teaching emotional connection and communication skills for over two decades. Learn her research-based, practical seven step method to improve your emotional connection with her online course: The RELATE Technique™ – Seven Steps to Emotionally Connect Through Conversation.