Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

Mario asked his wife, Kate, to help him move the couch so he could clean underneath it. He’s living with a chronic condition and needs some help with the heavier tasks.

Kate rolled her eyes, but grudgingly said, “Sure.”

“See how you can be?” Mario said. “I ask for something simple. Something that would take ten seconds. And you automatically get annoyed with me. I am trying to hold up my end of things here. I don’t think you know how hard it is for me to get all this work done.”

Jumping to conclusions

Diane and Oliver had a similar experience.

Oliver wasn’t feeling his best, and because of that he felt he hadn’t been able to get enough done at work that day. So, he decided he should stay late and keep working before going home. He texted Diane to let her know he would be at least a couple of hours late.

Diane immediately called him.

“Oliver, I know you’re avoiding me,” Diane said. “We had a simple difference of opinion that I thought we had resolved. But you were not very talkative this morning, and I had a feeling you were still holding a grudge. So why am I not surprised you don’t want to come home?”

Assumptions lead to accusations. And communication breaks down.

What I would like you to do is join me in looking at both of these scenarios from the perspective of a therapist. Members of my profession often get teased for wearing cardigan sweaters a lot, so if it helps, put on your favorite one, and imagine me wearing mine. Now let’s lean back and give these two couples are attention.

First, ask yourself two questions. What was going on with Mario and Diane? And what did each of them say to their partners that was not going to lead to a productive conversation?

I suspect your analysis would be similar to mine. Here is my take:

  • Both Mario and Diane were disappointed and frustrated with the way their partner responded to them.
  • Each of them made an assumption regarding their partner’s motivation in behaving the way they did.
  • As a result, they called out their partner on their behavior. In other words, they accused them of treating them disrespectfully or unfairly.
  • Most likely, their partners, Kate and Oliver, reacted negatively to the accusations thrown in their direction. A typical response would be to become defensive, and to feel they were being treated disrespectfully or unfairly.

Acting on assumptions

So … do you see a theme emerging here? It’s human nature to make an assumption about the other person’s motivation when you aren’t being treated the way you want to be treated and feel you deserve. It’s also human nature to act on that assumption and call your partner out.

But I have to ask: Where is this getting either couple? Chances are, further tension resulted. Tension that could have a negative impact on their harmony at home, as well as their emotional wellness. No couple benefits from this kind of tension. And it’s especially important for individuals living with a chronic condition to keep the stress down at home.

Have you had a similar experience with your partner? The good news is that what happened with these couples is avoidable. Here’s how:

Keep in mind that what your mind tells you may not be real. Our minds send us all kinds of thoughts, including interpretations of the situations we find ourselves in. Automatically. These interpretations may be based on past experiences that have nothing to do with the current situation. This clearly happened with Mario and Diane. Both assumed their partners had negative intentions and acted accordingly. But were their initial interpretations accurate? Most likely no.

Decide not to react immediately. You don’t have control over these automatic thoughts. But you do have a choice. You can choose to immediately act on the thought, as Mario and Diane did, or you can choose to consider other interpretations of the situation. I refer to this as taking a step back. You might say to yourself, “It sure feels like this is what my partner was intending with that behavior. But maybe I should consider other possibilities before I react.” Mario could have asked himself if Kate might have another reason for rolling her eyes, and then tried to understand why before calling her out on it. Diane might have considered the possibility that Oliver actually had a valid reason for working late, and that reason might have nothing to do with their disagreement the night before.

Reframe your response as a question. Instead of hurling an accusation at your partner, consider asking them to help you understand why they behaved the way they did. The best way to start that process is by asking a question. That question should ideally begin with the word “I” as you take ownership of your concern or confusion, and should then simply request that your partner give you some clarification. Mario might have said to Kate, “I’m concerned that you just rolled your eyes at my request. Can you talk to me about what’s going on?” Diane might have said to Oliver, “I’m sorry you have to stay late. Is there a problem at your job? I hope it’s not an emergency.” Questions. Simple questions. Not accusations of negative intentions.

And then listen. As I always say to my clients, when you ask a question, also be ready to listen to the response you receive. Mario might have learned that Kate is concerned about how much he is trying to do, and rolled her eyes because he should be resting, not doing housework that could have waited until tomorrow. Diane might have heard from Oliver about the pressure he felt to perform at his job, and his concern about being seen by others as doing his share. The questions that Mario and Diane asked could well have resulted in a discussion that helped everyone to avoid going to a negative place. And helped both couples to feel they were in harmony and supporting each other.

Repeat as needed. Situations like this are always going to come up in a relationship. Your partner is going to make a face, or an offhand comment, or take an action that is for some reason not going to sit quite right with you. And, sure enough, your mind is automatically going to send you a potential interpretation. Often it will be based on past negative experiences, or on other people from your past, that have nothing to do with what’s going on right now. Again, take a step back before you react.

You and your partner. Assumptions are not always correct. Accusations lead to defensiveness. With tension and hurt feelings resulting. The solution is simple. Ask, don’t accuse.

Have you or your partner ever made a negative assumption about one another that wasn’t correct? How did you handle it? Add a comment below to share your experience.