One of the best relationship coping mechanisms that I have in my tool box and share with clients is that of “qualifying intention”.
Let’s face it, sustaining a loving, healthy, and communicative relationship can be challenging from time to time. It’s not that our ‘love’ falters, but the little frustrations in our daily life tend to interfere with ‘that loving feeling’ we hope to cling to in our intimate relationships. We become impatient and annoyed by relatively inconsequential habits and/or attitudes and ultimately begin to make assumptions about the person’s meaning or ‘intention’.
First, let’s talk about assumptions. Henry Winkler is attributed to the quote “Assumptions are the termites of relationships” and I love that quote! It couldn’t be truer; at least for many of the couples who come in for counseling and it may go like this:
“If he loved me he wouldn’t have hurt me like this”
(Assumption: Someone who loves me won’t hurt me)
(Reality: People get caught up in their own needs; they do not consider the effect or consequence of others)
“She knew that would make me mad”
(Assumption: She knows what I am thinking)
(Reality: She did not know how important or serious it was to him)
“He pretended like nothing happened”
(Assumption: He was ignoring the situation)
(Reality: In his mind, the issue was resolved and he had dismissed it)
“We never experience intimacy”
(Assumption: She is having an affair / She doesn’t love me / I’m not important)
(Reality: She is ashamed and embarrassed of her post-baby body)
In each case, there is a statement or behavior that is interpreted and processed as a conclusion that in turn, generates some element of defense. The assumption is a thought in our head and it is IMPERATIVE that we CHECK the assumption for validity BEFORE we REACT! In all of the cases above, the assumption is clearly ONE possibility but the REALITY is also a possibility and very different from the initial assumption – generating a VERY different reaction!!
The key here is to recognize YOUR OWN defensive reaction. Ironically, we only react negatively to things that are threatening – things we feel the need to defend against. So… when you discover/recognize that you are behaving / speaking defensively, make sure you are defending the INTENTION of the person / situation you are reacting to.
Qualifying the Intention:
Our INTENTION when we commit to a relationship is to love someone and share our lives with one another. I feel it is safe to say that most people don’t go into a relationship with the intention of causing our pain or being selfish. Therefore, the mere concept that dysfunctional or hurtful behavior is intentional – is irrational! (In my experience, most of the time.)
When you feel hurt / angry / dismayed / betrayed / etc., – before you begin to defend – ASK what the INTENTION was of the person with whom you are communicating or interacting. I will recommend that you ask – nicely – as much as is possible because you may find that the individual’s INTENT was actually not derogatory at all. Asking with attitude – well, that’s just going to create a defense from the person you are talking with. Here are a few options:
“I’m confused by your behavior – was it your INTENTION to act in a way that is so hurtful to me?”
“I know we love each other so I am confused by (describe behavior)… can you help me understand your INTENTION?”
“In my mind, when someone (describe behavior), it means (define your understanding), is that what you INTENDED?
“I don’t want to assume what it means when you (describe behavior) so can you help me understand what your INTENTION is?”
In many cases, the response you receive will (hopefully) not be one of a defensive nature and you can engage in a productive / constructive conversation about what is REALLY happening versus the automatic assumption that you have made.
In any case, before you react to someone, especially a romantic partner (although this topic applies to communication with practically anyone!) – Remember that your assumption is one of potentially – many – possibilities for the other’s behavior. Be sure that you are reacting to something REAL.