Many of us have had the experience of saying something we thought was innocuous, only to have a friend or partner interpret it as a veiled accusation or an attempted guilt-trip. Or the reverse — an innocent comment by the other is perceived as a slight or criticism. Each party experiences and interprets the same situation in very different ways.
Sex therapist and relationship counselor Martha Kauppi shares her thoughts about how “meaning-making” can shape our relationships, in this adaptation of her longer article.
“Meaning-making” is the process by which we transform and understand our experiences, drawing on intuition and past experiences. The narratives we create can literally give our lives meaning, help us find joy, fulfillment, and compassion in our lives, as well as avoid potentially dangerous or difficult situations.
Too often, however, we create negative narratives that get in the way of our own happiness. A running negative (and usually inaccurate) narrative — be it self-critical, suspicious, self-victimizing, or all-or-nothing — suffuses our conversations with doubt, self-doubt and unnecessary suffering.
Checking our assumptions and reframing our negative narratives is an essential, and liberating, relationship skill. It involves:
— asking nuanced questions;
— really listening to the answers; and
— honing our ability to bravely share the fears and vulnerabilities that underlie the assumptions we make.
Following these steps is helpful in taking back control of our narratives:
The best thing to do in a charged moment is the exact opposite of what you instinctively want to do. Rather than charging forward with anger, defensiveness, or anxiety… pause. You have plenty of time to address what’s going on. Breathe. Notice what you’re feeling, in body and mind.
Identify your narrative themes
What fears return to you again and again? When you feel anxious, lonely, angry, or sad, what stories run through your mind? Can you think of times you have interpreted a perhaps innocuous situation negatively; can you identify what you were thinking at the time? Once identified, narratives become less automatic. You can start to set them apart from your immediate experience, notice and challenge them.
Reframe the situation
Describe what you’re noticing, as neutrally as possible, rather than catastrophizing or drawing connections to the past. Notice the assumptions you’re making, and make an effort to think of at least one or two alternative explanations. (For example: Maybe there is another reason my partner didn’t answer my phone calls, other than the assumption that I am not a priority for him.)
Check your assumptions with your partner
Once you’ve paused, identified your narrative and reframed the situation, you may already feel better. But if you’re still feeling unsettled, check in with your partner, asking him/her what he actually meant or why she did what she did. Your partner’s response may provide you with a fresh, more nuanced and less negative understanding of the experience at hand. And even if it turns out your partner was criticizing you, at least you can have a reality-based conversation rather than relying on assumptions and mind-reading.