My partner doesn’t understand me; what should I do?

September 12, 2023
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A common source of conflict and distress in relationships is not feeling understood. This desire for understanding is natural, as humans are social creatures. Research indicates that when we feel understood, the parts of our brain associated with reward and social connection activate. Conversely, if we don’t feel understood, the part of our brain associated with a negative mood is triggered. Dan Siegel describes “understanding” as “feeling felt” when someone really “gets us,” and we authentically and empathically connect. So, what can you do if your partner doesn’t seem to understand you? Consider these four tips to help you know yourself and your partner better. Couples therapy is good if you still feel stuck after trying these tips.

#1 – Take a Breather

Before starting a conversation, being calm and focused is essential. Feeling misunderstood can lead to impulsive reactions that aren’t particularly helpful. Before approaching your partner, take a few minutes to engage in a calming activity, such as walking or practicing deep breathing. Once you’re feeling more composed, ask yourself questions to clarify what you want to discuss:

  • What is bothering me, and why?
    • Practice connecting thoughts and feelings with what you want from this conversation.
  • Am I afraid of something, like the relationship ending or feeling rejected?
  • What does my partner understand about my concern/experience/perspective?
    • What do they not understand?
  • Do I have a specific outcome or solution, or am I open to discussion?
  • Do I react negatively when my partner doesn’t “get it”?
  • What assumptions am I making about my partner?

#2 – Consider Timing

Finding the right time to talk with your partner is essential. When we feel upset, it is natural to want to talk right away, but that can lead to knee-jerk reactions and keep us from getting the things we want. So, take a deep breath and think about a good time to chat. Sometimes, this can feel tricky, so one way to help with this is to create a daily check-in. This can help avoid the phrase “We need to talk,” which tends to create tension and anxiety. Daily check-in lets you talk more efficiently without making it seem like a tough conversation is coming.

#3 – Start Effectively

A typical challenge is avoiding impulsive reactions. It’s crucial first to calm down and choose an appropriate time to discuss (as outlined in steps #1 and #2). The subsequent step involves communicating in a manner that your partner can comprehend. Beginning with accusatory statements like “You never listen” or “You’re so selfish, you never ask about my day” ensures that neither party feels understood and frequently escalates to conflict. Criticism and contempt eat away at relationships. Dr. John and Julie Gottman classify criticism and contempt as part of the “Four Horsemen” of relationships, along with defensiveness and stonewalling. Criticism attacks a person’s character, leading to defensiveness. Contempt takes a moral high ground and tends to be mean. Engaging in any of the “four horsemen” makes it difficult to leave a conversation feeling understood. Instead, try:

  • Engaging in tips #1 and #2
  • Lead with feelings
    • Instead of “you never listen,” try, “I feel hurt when I talk to you, and you don’t look up from your phone. I’d appreciate it if you could put your phone down when talking.”

#4 – Be the Change

This can be tough. It isn’t easy to listen when you feel like you’re not being heard. Yet, it’s beneficial for both parties. If you’re feeling misunderstood, chances are your partner feels the same. Being in a cycle of disconnection and hurt can make it hard to alter these habits. A key to breaking this cycle is to concentrate on your reactions. When caught in such patterns, everyone is upset and might behave regretfully. By focusing on your behavior and actively listening, you can maintain calmness and begin to foster healthier dynamics in your relationship.

Active listening tips:

  • Summarize what you hear.
    • You think _____ is that right?
  • Nod your head.
  • Eye contact.
  • Ask questions.
    • Try to be curious.
      • What is going on for them here? 
      • Am I making any assumptions? 

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