One of the worst things we as women do to our men is something I call ‘defining their reality’. We don't even know we're doing it and it gets us in so much trouble.
It looks something like this “because you did X it must mean Y”.
Here’s an example; Gina and Rob were in my office, they’d had a better week but Gina quickly started to get upset “you didn’t even give me a card yesterday for Valentine’s day, that’s how much you care for me!” Rob didn’t say anything, he just looked at Gina but by the look on his face I could tell he was angry. After a long silence I asked “What’s going on for you right now Rob?”. “Last year we had a horrible Valentine’s day, I’d upset her by not writing enough in the card I got for her and the meal we paid way too much for was awful. Gina was so upset, said she’d rather just forget about Valentine’s day as it was often such a set up for disappointment, so I was happy to follow those orders.”
Gina said she’d forgotten about that but that Rob was right, she sheepishly apologized. Rob wasn’t appeased. “Do you believe that Gina’s sorry?” I asked him “Yes” he answered flatly, and fell silent again. “So it looks like something’s getting in the way of you being able to accept her apology, can you think what that might be?”. “I’ll tell you what it is” he said, the set of his jaw and the steel in his eye mirrored the anger in his measured words “ I am so sick and tired of her telling me every time I make a mistake that it means I don’t care about her”. “It just doesn’t seem fair to you”, I replied. “Damn right” he said, “It just burns me up the way she always thinks she knows what I’m thinking… and it’s never good. She never notices when I get something right - does it make her feel cared for then? Why does she even want to keep being in this relationship with me if she thinks I don’t care about her?”
Gina began to deny that she always did it. “Just stay with what you’re hearing Rob say right now Gina, can you see how maddening it is for him when you define his intention behind something he does or doesn’t do?” Gina thinks for a while and finally says “Yes, it must be very frustrating”.
Gina is not intentionally being uncharitable when she does it, she’s just being human. We are all meaning making machines and in the absence of clarity we tend to fill in the blanks ourselves. Sadly, thanks to our negative-biased brains the things we make up tend to be negative and more often then not they tend to be wrong.
Most of us remember how our parents or teachers defined our reality, it made us feel misunderstood, bad and oftentimes hopeless. Usually they didn’t even ask us any questions or explore what our intentions were before assigning their own meaning to our behaviors.
The good news is, with mindfulness and an intention to be openheartedly exploratory with our partners (before reacting) things can turn out very differently.
Let’s say Gina had instead said in an openhearted way “Honey I’m surprised you didn’t give me a card for Valentine’s day, it’s most unlike you, is there any particular reason?”. Rob would then have explained and the new Gina would have apologized “I’m sorry for looking a gift-horse in the mouth when you gave me a card last year” and with a big smile and a twinkle in her eye she’d say “I love getting cards from you especially when they say a sentence or two about why you love me, it makes me feel so special”.
Start noticing when you find yourself defining your partner’s reality (or them yours). Start up an open-hearted discussion with them about it – ask them if they’ve ever experienced it and if so how did it make them feel?
Tell them that you’d like to change it and it would be helpful if they open-heartedly pointed it out next time they saw (felt) it.
If you see yourself doing it first (which you probably will as sadly men don’t feel very entitled to their feelings) point it out to them. Ask them to try and recognize that it’s an old habit most of us are taught in our youth that we want their help to break. Work together non-judgmentally to call each other on the behavior and explore how it makes you feel.
Taking responsibility for our own inadvertently hurtful behavior creates so much goodwill (once your partner starts to believe that it’s not a trap and you really mean it :- ) and it quickly starts to rebuild trust in a relationship that’s seen a few too many hostile arguments (which is in fact the majority of relationships - so please don’t go beating yourself up about all this now!).
Please be sure to leave a comment if you recognize this behavior or, if you try an openhearted discussion let me know how it goes.
Look out for my cheatsheet on how to have an openhearted discussion.
Until next time, keep it real.
With love and light,
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