“Once in awhile I am late and my boyfriend takes it so personally. I can understand why he gets upset but he blows it way out of proportion and it triggers our biggest fights. How can I convince my man that it’s not about him?” – Paul, Fort Collins, Colorado
No relationship is free of conflict.
In the same way that we are comprised of swirling atoms – positive and negative charges that attract and repel – two people are forces orbiting each other, moving towards and away, trying to find a way to coexist and take shape in the world.
There are two parts to Paul’s question.
The first is the fraught nature of his boyfriend’s response to his lateness. The second is that Paul wants to “convince” his partner not to feel the way he does. Unfortunately, we cannot decide for another that their reaction is out of proportion. When it comes to arguments, it is dangerous to think of oneself as the barometer of sanity or the arbiter of overreactions (i.e. “I think you’re taking this way too personally”). Let go of any assumptions you have about how people should or must react to you. It never bodes well.
Now to the meat of Paul’s question…There are patterns in arguments that are well recognized that I see over and over again. Here are three patterns Paul and his partner, and all of us, can examine as we think about how to fight better.
Check your Bias
Damian, Paul’s boyfriend, is convinced that Paul is late on purpose. I can hear the tenor of this argument: “You know how much it upsets me,” he may say to Paul. “Clearly, you behave this way because you don’t respect me.”
This assumption is known as confirmation bias where we pick up evidence along the way to confirm what we think is true and disregard any evidence that will challenge our conclusion, and make us reconsider our worldview. It doesn’t matter how many times Paul has been early or taken special care to be on time, the instances where he is late are magnified.
So why do we persist in thinking other people don’t care about us when they are often trying to convince us that they do? Because we organize our reality around these confirmation biases – they create order for us, structure among the chaos.
Paul, don’t justify, don’t explain, don’t make excuses, give Damian space to be pissed off. Acknowledge his frustration. Simply say: “I know how much you hate this” and “I understand completely that you would feel this way when I’m late”. Leave the other person with the meaning that they have invested in the situation, with the space to feel the way they do and stay connected to them amidst the conflict.
And for Damian (and all of us) think of the times when Paul has done the right thing.
Cut Out the Character Assassination
When I do something wrong (like arriving late) it’s typically circumstantial. But if you fail me, I attribute it to your character.
Damian is convinced that Paul’s lateness is a character flaw; evidence of how disrespectful, uncaring, disorganized and distracted he is. Paul, no doubt, has an entirely different view of his behavior based on the day — for instance, “the subway was stalled” or “I really had to finish this report before leaving the office”.
We call this fundamental attribution error where we attribute our mistakes to the context but the ones of our partners are rooted in their faulty personality.
Another way to phrase this is: I am perfect and you are not.
I suggest a good dose of humor when this pattern appears in your relationship.
Avoid Always & Never
Conflict often creates a contraction between couples, a rigidity, leaving little room for flexibility or nuance. “You’re always late,” says Damian. “You never acknowledge what I do for you,” Paul will fire back.
These always and never statements become factual – as if what we have asserted is empirically verified data.One important thing to understand about a couple’s communication is that a lot of what is presented as fact is actually an intensification of someone’s experience.
When you say “never!” or “always” to someone, the first thing they will do is disagree, citing a contrary example from the past. Don’t shift your feelings into pseudo-factual talk. The best thing you can do in an always/never situation is say, “It feels like you do this all the time. Probably you don’t but in this moment, I feel like it’s so.”