Building Bridges

Issue # 36 of 43 

David LeClaire
By: David LeClaire

Accepting Your Partner's Reality

Occasionally errors are made in your communications with your partner. Here's an example. Tim accidentally offended his wife Erin by telling her she looked old in the outfit she was wearing. In situations such as this, both would be better off if she expressed her feelings and also forgave Tim without making an enormous issue out of his blunder. Yet it may not always be so easy to do so.

Sometimes one partner becomes upset and the other doesn't share their anger, hurt, or frustration. If Erin hadn't been as understanding and instead became resentful towards Tim, chances are he would have become defensive rather than apologetic. Since Tim knew he hadn't intended to hurt her feelings, he would have then believed she had misinterpreted his comment and was over-reacting.

Instead of invalidating Erin's feelings, Tim said to her "I'm sorry I upset you with that last comment. I didn't mean to. I think we're both a little sensitive about getting older, I know I am. I still find you to be beautiful, and you don't look old to me at all." Just by acknowledging her feelings and apologizing, Tim healed the small wound before it became any worse.

If you were to say to your partner, "When you don't pick up after yourself around the house. I feel taken for granted" you would be expressing what that gesture means to you, regardless of whether it was intended or not. Another example is, "When you told me that you're afraid I will forget to pick up the kids after school I felt like you were saying I can't be depended on." How a situation is experienced by your partner is what needs to be acknowledged and dealt with.

An obviously ineffective approach would be, "You're all wrong. You misinterpreted what I said. It's your fault, not mine. I never said that and never intended that." Here you invalidate your partner's feelings. You basically tell them you played no part in their interpretation. This is not a very diplomatic and congenial way to get to where you want to go. Accept some responsibility, apologize for sending a message that resulted in your partner's feelings being hurt, and make the effort to heal the wound.

The bottom line is what your partner is feeling is what they're feeling. It isn't right or wrong. Their reactions, feelings, or actions may seem unreasonable, unnecessary, or inappropriate. It may not have been the way you would have reacted, or the way you would have liked them to. Yet that's irrelevant. How they feel is how they feel.

Never tell your partner,"You shouldn't be angry. You need to get over it," or, "You're over-reacting." The odds are good that he/she will take offense to your presumption that you know what and how they should be feeling.

Too many times we get so hurt or angry by our partner's selection of words that the conversation takes an unfortunate turn. The couple finds themselves becoming increasingly upset when the conflict could have been diffused at the very beginning. You can reduce the possibility of "escalation" by remembering intentionality, and then by not invalidating your partner's feelings with comments such as "You're making a big deal out of nothing."

It's valuable to learn how to express yourself, but it's just as important to change the way you look at the comments, actions, and feelings of your partner. Your new attitude will be reflected in your words, tone of voice, and body language.

There are no "right" words or phrases to memorize. Instead what is essential is the shift in attitude which is reflected by your words. If you are sincere, your partner will get the message that you are indeed sorry and you do care. This helps make it much easier to let go of hurt or frustration and move on. When your words feel "empty" to your partner, as if they are being read out of a book, he/she will easily detect the lack of sincerity.

The other day Kris asked me if I would clean up the kitchen after she left for a meeting. I agreed, and then proceeded to get involved in other projects and forgot all about it. I didn't intentionally disregard her request. It was an honest oversight. However, when she came home, nothing had been done. She felt that I had ignored her request and felt taken for granted because recently I had not been showing much initiative in doing the household tasks. Thankfully, Kris was able to bring this up in a manner that did not make me defensive. I didn't feel inclined to go to great lengths to explain my forgetfulness. She wanted a little help, I said I would do so, and then didn't.

Kris said,"I was disappointed when I came home tonight and saw the kitchen was a mess. I don't ask for your help cleaning up the kitchen very often, and you didn't follow through. I'm sure you didn't plan on not doing it, but either way, it still didn't get done." I heard her loud and clear. She didn't get upset, but was firm and didn't ignore the situation. I didn't waste time acknowledging that not only had I let her down, and hadn't been helping very often, but I was genuinely sorry as well.

The next day, while she was out doing errands, I did the dishes, vacuumed, swept the floors, cleaned the countertops, did laundry, took out the garbage, and dusted. All as a gesture to express my genuine apology. She was impressed, and I was proud of myself. A weak apology is one that is just words but never results in any change of behavior or action taken.

My lack of original follow through wasn't a big problem from my perspective. Yet even though Kris didn't get upset, it was much more significant to her. Because of that, I acknowledged her feelings and took measures to show her I understood. I'm certainly not the perfect partner at all times, but in this one example, you can see how I take my relationship seriously enough to listen to my partner's concerns, and do what it takes to show I love her and I care.

You can do the same by acknowledging your partner's "reality" as being just as valid and important as your own. By paying attention to how your actions, words, and non-verbal communication affect your partner, you can respond accordingly when something is experienced in a different manner than you had intended.

David LeClaire has spent much of his time teaching at community college and private school, and lead communications training for Fortune 500 companies. Now a popular and active Seattle area sommelier, this graduate of Central Michigan University led seminars for a wide variety of organizations. LeClaire is the author of "Bridges To A Passionate Partnership." He can be reached at

Building Bridges Table of Contents

Text © 1998, David LeClaire. Part of the original Sideroad.
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