Have you ever had a friend or acquaintance who you must tip-toe around? You find yourself carefully choosing your words because you know, from experience, that something you say may be taken too personally and lead to an argument or misunderstanding. You may feel exhausted after a conversation and decide to step back from the friendship because it is a minefield of emotions waiting to explode.
When this occurs within a relationship, things can get very tricky. I see this within my practice when one person in the relationship consistently interprets their partner’s actions and words as a personal attack. This instability is unsustainable and can lead to a relationship breakdown, causing emotional distress for both people involved.
The Science Behind the Problem.
When an innocent comment is taken as a slight, a cognitive distortion occurs, which is often seen in psychology. This distortion happens when a person interprets external events or actions of others as a direct reflection of their self-worth. For example, a simple, innocent comment from one person may be perceived as a criticism of their self-esteem, character, or abilities. This distortion can create a vicious cycle of negative interpretations, leading to both people feeling emotionally vulnerable, and inevitably, conflict escalates within the marriage.
How Does This Affect Communication?
When one or both partners habitually take things personally, it can destroy a couple’s communication ability in several ways. Firstly, it can lead to defensive responses. Instead of listening to their partner’s perspective, they may instead put up emotional walls and focus on protecting their self-esteem. This defensiveness can, in turn, escalate conflicts, making finding common ground and resolving issues challenging.
When someone is sensitive to constructive criticism or a simple ask for change, even the most minor requests can blow up into a full-blown flight. Let’s take the following couple, Holly and Aiden, who decided to make dinner together, cutting vegetables for a stir-fry. Holly likes the vegetables cut in a certain way; she feels comforted by routine and knows how long each vegetable takes to cook when cut a specific way, making the cooking process more straightforward. Aiden knows his wife’s routine in the kitchen, having helped her before, but tonight, Aiden decides to change things up and cut the vegetables differently. Seeing this, Holly asked, ‘Hey, babe, can you please go back to how we usually cut them? It makes it easier for me.” It was a polite request and one that had reasoning behind it. Aiden responded by slamming down the knife. “I can’t do anything right, can I?” he fumed, swiping the vegies he cut into the bin before walking away and slamming the door behind him.
Aiden took the request personally, leaving Holly in a predicament. She may hesitate to have him help again, choosing instead to do the job herself while quietly feeling resentful. Or, she may react immediately, telling Aiden to ‘Quit taking things so personally,’ but this could lead to a full-blown argument. Either way results in a negative outcome and a situation that leads to feelings of resentment with no resolution.
Secondly, taking things too personally can involve making negative assumptions about your partner’s motives and intentions, creating mistrust and further eroding the ability to communicate effectively. We all misinterpret people’s actions occasionally, but things need to change when this is a default state.
For example, Steven is a devoted father and husband, but once a month, he sets time aside to meet up with his old college mates, something he has been doing for over a decade. The mates all loved a hot curry, and every month, they would challenge themselves to find a new restaurant and order the hottest curry on the menu. It was a bit of a running joke because Steven, despite loving curry, could never handle the heat, so his mates thought it was a hoot watching him sweat and pant his way through his meal as he guzzled down pints of water.
Steven’s wife knew her husband’s routine but was always suspicious. She believed his ‘curry nights’ were a slight at her, interpreting it as him not wanting to spend time with her. This was not true, and he reassured her of this every month, but she still took his night with the boys personally.
This left Steven in a bind as he knew he came home to a grumpy wife every time he left, but he also enjoyed his time with his long-time friends. This situation leads to both people feeling utterly miserable and resentful.
How Does This Impact You Emotionally?
When somebody repeatedly perceives even the most innocent remarks or actions as personal attacks, they may doubt their self-worth and the strength of their relationship. This can lead to feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and depression, creating a toxic emotional environment within the marriage.
This can have a snowball effect where unresolved conflicts and hurt feelings begin to destroy the emotional connection you once shared.
Emotional intimacy is a vital component of a thriving marriage. Feeling hamstrung and unable to openly share your thoughts and feelings without fear of sparking an adverse reaction can lead to emotional distancing and detachment.
Breaking the Cycle.
This may be a hard pill to swallow; however, we must take a long, hard look at ourselves and admit that we all tend to take things personally and must learn how this affects our relationships. Doing this helps us foster a healthier, more resilient marriage.
Here are some strategies to break this destructive cycle:
- Self-awareness: The first step is recognizing the tendency to take things personally. This awareness can help you differentiate between objective criticisms and perceived attacks on their self-worth.
- Open communication: Encourage open and honest communication with your partner. Create a safe space for discussing concerns, emotions, and misunderstandings without judgment or defensiveness.
- Empathy: Try to see situations from your partner’s perspective and understand their intentions. This can help prevent misinterpretations and improve mutual understanding.
- Seek professional help: If taking things personally is profoundly ingrained and causing significant issues in your marriage, consider an appointment with a Psychologist specializing in relationship issues. My details are at the end of this article.
Taking things personally is a normal human emotion, but it is time to make a change when this begins to impact your relationship. Taking steps to open the lines of communication between yourself and your partner, talking about how this affects your relationship and how you can make daily changes to overcome this habit, helps reestablish communication and pave the way for a solid future where you build a stronger, harmonious relationship.
To learn more about taking things too personally and how to overcome this problem in your relationship, download our mini-course: “Understanding your partner: Unveiling the secrets to a deeper connection.”
In this mini course, we teach you to the art of Irimi. Here you learn to focus on your partner while centering yourself using your ‘wise adult’ frame of mind. Irimi involves using cognitive empathy to understand your partner’s perspective from a loving and harmonious place. There are six techniques that we cover that are designed to foster an environment of unity and togetherness making it difficult for continued hostility. Once you have mastered these steps, you can move on to the next of Verbal Aikido, Aiki.
Our entire course is also available on our website, as well as books, our blog, and other classes. www.angercoach.com, follow the link, and start your journey to a harmonious relationship.