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Moods and misunderstandings

He said/she said:

Moods and misunderstandings.

Mixed-up assumptions are a common culprit when there’s a conflict between spouses, lovers, family members or friends. We think we know what the other intended, and we react sometimes with anger or hurt.

But, often, we’ve assumed wrong, and the battle begins. No one wins, and each is left feeling hurt, angry and misunderstood.

She: Dinner’s ruined. You could call when you’re going to be late. You never give a thought to how I’m inconvenienced. You always take me for granted.
He: And you’re always nagging me. I worked late. I thought you’d want me to go for the overtime. Anyway, I didn’t even get a minute to stop and call.

When we’re embroiled in a “he said/she said” conflict, it’s important to try to identify what assumptions are fueling our emotions and realize that what he or she said or did may not be as important as how it made us feel. Working with our partner on fixing how we feel can help to repair the problem and find ways to minimize similar conflicts in the future.

Examine the assumptions that are fueling your emotions

Separate impact from intentions. What did the other person actually say or do? How did it make you feel? What assumption are you making about what the other person intended?

Express your assumptions and explain that you’re trying to check out the validity of what you think. “It felt like you meant to embarrass me, but I don’t think you would do that.”

When we think our intentions were good, we feel that our partner should not feel hurt or angry and that it’s “her problem.” But her feelings are valid and the conflict needs to be addressed.

Focus on the impact, not the intentions

Labeling can disguise our feelings and force the other person to defend themselves: Words like “You’re irresponsible.” “And you’re a nag.” may really mean “When you don’t call me when you’re going to be late for dinner, I feel frustrated;” “When you criticize me, I feel put-down.” The second set of statements gives you a starting place for a healing conversation.

Don’t underestimate the power of a few caring words

“I can understand how you would feel that way.”
“That must have been frustrating.”
“I’m sorry.”

Do a reality check.

Thoughts and emotions can be deceptive and perspective skewed when moods are at work. “I’m saying (this)…Is that what you’re hearing me say?”

If a loved one is down, up or anxious, it may be best to postpone a conversation until a better time.

Labeling emotions, such as anger or excitement, as symptoms of their depression, mania or anxiety is invalidating, and creates resentment and mistrust. Don’t say “You’re really overreacting. Have you been taking your meds?” You can’t know whether her feelings have anything to do with her disorder.

It’s okay to have your own feelings, while empathizing with your partner. “I know you can’t help feeling down, but I’m feeling frustrated.”

Resolving conflicts takes a little effort. But with practice, we can learn to communicate in ways that leave each partner feeling heard and valued.


Markman, Stanley, Blumberg (1994) Fighting for your marriage, Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers
Stone, Patton, Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project (1999) Difficult Conversations, Penguin Books

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