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Gaining Some Perspective: Learning How to Understand Where Your Partner is Coming From

Have you ever struggled to understand your partner? Maybe you were in an argument and your partner was overly-sensitive (in your opinion) to something that you said or maybe your mate laughed out loud at something that you took very seriously. Whatever the circumstance, we have all felt this way at some point or another. Why did he respond like that? How was I supposed to know what she really meant? How did he get that from our conversation? How did she not understand my point of view? Believe me, I know the feeling. It seems like my husband and I are habitually working towards understanding each other's points of view. And no, you cannot just chalk it up to the idea that Men are From Mars and Women are from Venus! It just doesn't work that way. Men and women are WAY more similar than the media would lead you to believe. Anyways, that's another topic for another post.

From one partner simply getting the wrong idea about what the other partner wanted for a birthday present to a ridiculously huge, drawn-out argument about how one partner was seriously offended by the other, numerous problems can be caused by these communication faux-pas.

Sometimes, these misunderstandings can be explained by taking a look at (and then being sensitive to) your partner's past experiences, core personality traits, and upbringing. In fact, a individual's upbringing significantly contributes to how that person develops his or her communication style, communication skills, and general approach to communication interactions. For instance, if your partner was raised in a house where conflict was typically avoided (or not allowed), it is likely very difficult for your partner to first, have an argument, and second, learn to effectively engage in constructive conflict. Similarly, if your mate was brought up to be emotional and maybe even mushy about his or her feelings, this may be one of the reasons why your partner wants to say "I love you" 683 times a day or wants to use cutesy nicknames (which, by the way, is actually really good for your relationship) or wants to have discussions about your feelings and the state of your relationship on a daily basis.

Below are some research-based connections found between parental behaviors and a child's internalization of those behaviors. Hopefully, they can help you better understand how and/or why your mate communicates and reacts to your communication efforts.

First, when there is a significant amount of arguing (between parent and child or between both parents) in the home, children tend to (items below cited from Corry, 1992)...
  • develop issues of abandonment and fears for personal safety because they are frightened by what they are experiencing.
  • develop low self-esteem because they blame themselves for the arguments.
  • develop anger problems, with boys lashing out on others and girls lashing out on themselves.
  • not be able to trust others because they were not able to become close with one or both of their parents.
  • experience low-grade, long-term depression.
  • have a difficult time understanding physical and verbal boundaries because they saw their violent parent violate other people's boundaries and it became the norm for them. 
Second, when a parent (or parents) engages in criticism of other people (whether the criticized persons are strangers, friends, family members, the other parent, or the child), children tend to (items below cited from Cynthia Henrie, MFT)...
  • develop feelings of self-hate because they feel as though they are not good enough and are not able to do anything correctly.
  • learn to not trust themselves and question decisions that they have made.
  • develop low self-esteem because again, they blame themselves for the criticism (even when the critical remarks are not directed toward themselves).
  • undermine and underestimate themselves in personal relationships.
  • become either overly dependent on or overly independent from a romantic partner.

Third, when one or both parents fail to verbally or emotionally respond to a child during times of distress (including things like falling down and scraping a knee, going to the doctor, being frustrated with a task, waking up in the middle of the night, being sick, having close family members become sick, experiencing parents divorce, experiencing the death of someone close to them, etc.) or respond to a child in a negative manner, children tend to...
  • develop insecure attachment styles. Attachment theory contends that "the nature of early interactions with a caregiver will inform young children's internal working models which influence the nature of their interpersonal relationships well into adulthood" (Flora, 2004, p. 51). Specifically, there are four general attachment styles discussed in the literature. Below is a general description of adults with each attachment style (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991).
    • Securely attached adults...
      • 1. are comfortable with both intimacy and independence
      • 2. do not often worry about their partners accepting them or about abandonment
      • 3. have positive images of themselves and others
      • 4. tend to be highly sociable
      • 5. are open to expressing emotions in relationships
    • Fearful-Avoidant adults...
      • 1. want close relationships, but have trouble trusting others
      • 2. are torn between a desire for intimacy and a fear of sharing their emotions
      • 3. have negative images of themselves and others
      • 4. are hypersensitive to social approval, but avoid social situations
      • 5. tend to emotionally retreat or fail to express their feelings
    • Dismissive-Avoidant adults...
      • 1. crave independence and claim that they do not need a relationship
      • 2. seek less intimacy when in relationships
      • 3. have a positive self-image, but a negative image of others
      • 4. prefer to spend time away from the social scene
      • 5. do not openly express their feelings with their partners
    • Anxious-Preoccupied adults...
      • 1. want intimacy in relationships, but tend to become way too dependent on others
      • 2. can become obsessive when in a relationship
      • 3. have a low opinion of themselves, but a high opinion of others
      • 4. have a strong desire for approval from their mates
      • 5. are extremely comfortable with their emotions and usually desire high levels of emotional disclosure, yet they consistently worry about whether their partners are accepting them

Lastly, when families move around a lot (either from house to house, from city to city, from state to state, or from country to country) or just once because of some traumatic event (such as a house fire, natural disaster, death of a parent, divorce, or the like) children could (see Steele & Shepard, 2003 for a review)...
  • develop fears of abandonment because they are repeatedly leaving their group of friends, family members, and surroundings. Later in life, these people tend to not welcome change (because things changed so much for them as children) and may not make new friends (because they feel like those people would probably leave them anyway, so working on a new friendship not worth the trouble) very easily.
  • suffer in school. In fact, studies show that, “children who move frequently are more likely to have problems at school” (Facts for Families, 1999, p. 1).
  • become depressed or develop other anxiety disorders.

These are just a few outcomes of childhood experiences, and unfortunately, many of these childhood developments stay with people through out adolescence and adulthood. This is not to say that people are unable to change. People can and do change. It happens everyday in fact. But, more often than not, some, if not all, of the outcomes that individuals have adopted from their parent's behaviors in childhood remain relatively stable over the lifespan.

What can you do to combat the arguments that may arise from differing childhood experiences? Gain some perspective. Try to put yourself in your partner's shoes. Perspective-taking, defined as the ability to see things from another's viewpoint, is a skill that is difficult for many of us to learn. Perspective-taking involves more than being sympathetic to your partner's feelings. It involves more than feeling sorry for or pitying your mate. It involves more than feeling bad about what happened to him or her as a child. And, it involves more than simply wanting your partner to be happy.

Perspective-taking involves three interrelated abilities: "to perceive and be aware of another's situation (perceptual empathy), to take another's point of view through thinking (cognitive empathy), and to feel with what another is feeling (affective empathy)" (Friedman, 2010, p. 1).

Let's say that you feel like your partner was overly sensitive to your recent teasing about how your mate dresses. You recognize that your mate is upset and then reflect upon your partner's past experiences. When you begin to realize that your mate's overly critical parent may have made him or her overly sensitive to your teasing (even if your remarks were well-intentioned), you are engaging in perceptual empathy (i.e. perceiving the situation that your partner is facing). Then, when you really begin to think about how it must have been very difficult to be criticized by a parent (one of the only people in the world who should have unconditional love and affection for you) you are engaging in cognitive empathy (i.e. putting yourself in his or her shoes). Finally, when you consider how your mate must have felt as a child when he or she was criticized by a parent and how he or she felt when another person whom he or she trusted made a comment that could be interpreted as criticism, you are engaging in affective empathy.

Taking your partner's perspective is only the first step. Yes, you need to fully understand where your mate is coming from, but you need to then take things a step further. Specifically, you should talk things out with your partner. Begin by explaining how something makes you feel- "When you say things like _________, it makes me feel _____________," OR "When you react like ___________, it makes me feel _______________." Then, give your mate a turn. And LISTEN to what he or she has to say. Really listen. And, if the time is right- don't interrupt- then tell your partner how you are trying to understand how he or she feels and that it must be difficult to have had to deal with those experiences. Next, you'll want to discuss your game plan. What do the two of you need to work on? Note: this will not be one-sided- BOTH of you will need to work on something. Whether you need to be more sensitive to the reasons for your partner's actions and your mate needs to realize that you didn't mean anything buy your own remarks, or vice versa, talk it out- you could even make pledges to one another about your plans to be better partners who are in-tune with one another. Explicitly recognizing the causes of miscommunication or conflict and talking about it in a calm and mature manner can greatly improve your bond as a couple and may very well be able to prevent some miscommunication from occurring in the future.

Gordon Moskowitz (2004) stated, "We must be able to stand in the shoes of others, see the world through their eyes, empathize with what they are feeling." This is an important skill to have in life, and it's especially important when you are navigating your way through a romantic relationship. Good luck!

  • Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 226- 244.
  • Corry, B. (1992). Understanding domestic violence: A recovery resource for battered women and those who work with them. Care Program.
  • Facts for Families. (1999). Children and family moves. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 14, 1-2.
  • Flor, J. (2004). Family communication. Routledge Communication Series.
  • Moskowitz, G. (2004). Social cognition: Understanding self and others. Guilford Press: New York, NY.
  • Steele, W., & Sheppard, C. H. (2003). Moving can become traumatic. Trauma and Loss: Research and Interventions, 3.


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