The Silent Killer of Relationships: The Gap Between Intent And Impact
Updated: Nov 22
This topic has come in my therapy office a lot lately. During a conflict, one partner tries to explain why the good reasons that they did the hurtful thing, with the hope that the other will understand and not be hurt any longer.
One of my couples asked me this week: “Please tell me why explaining my intentions doesn’t work to calm down my partner and de-escalate an argument?” Another similar dynamic with a different couple is that one partner is constantly saying “But, I am a good person.” The meta message with this one to the hurt partner is: “Forget the reason you are mad, you shouldn’t be angry with me, because I had good intentions and am a good person.” Still, another dynamic is when one partner goes into detail trying to convince the other partner of the facts of the situation, thinking somehow the facts will change their partner’s perspective.
I was thinking of that old saying: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Intention doesn’t matter, only the impact does.
Here is what is going on, conversations, even heated ones, are about topics. Fights and arguments between couples are about unmet attachment needs and emotional unsafety.
Let’s take an example, let’s look at the argument and what is really going on. For example, one partner says, “Why do we always need to do it YOUR way?” The other partner says, “You never ever listen to me!!” The biggest problem with all these behaviors during an argument, besides that they don’t work, is that these comments miss the point completely.
The fight IS NOT about, how the couple manages money, being late, how to make the bed, what clothes to wear to the party, going out with your friends, how long it took text back, whether you want to go for run, or the exact words that you said two years ago.
Intent vs Impact: The Deeper Meaning
The fight IS ABOUT the deeper meaning of unmet attachment needs, in the moment. Each partner is roughly saying, I don’t know if my needs matter to you. I don’t feel valuable to you, I don’t feel appreciated. Are we even a team? I don’t know I can even have a say, I don’t know you will be there when I need you, I don’t feel validated for my experience, I don’t know if I can ever get it right. Overall, I don’t feel heard and responded to.
Each partner feels in these moments, small, alone, sad, hopeless, powerless, invisible, worthless, with maybe a pit in the stomach, a failure, tightness in the chest and so far from the other partner.
The biggest problem is that the strategy of explaining the facts, the reasons behind doing the thing, and trying to show good intention, gets into details that aren’t the real reason for the hurts. These responses feel defensive and create the negative communication dynamic. The defensiveness promotes a "you vs me" climate. It tells your partner “Your concerns are too much. You are the bad guy for even bringing it up in the first place, you are wrong!” Everyone wants to be seen as good.
Defensiveness is other- focused and hurts safety and security. Its message is, “I need to change the way you think”, rather than, “Here is the way I see it.” Defensiveness is reactive instead of pro-active and decreases the odds you will be heard. Defensiveness leaves both partners stuck in detail, instead of focusing on the deeper, and more intimate meaning. Finally, and most importantly, defensiveness leaves your partner feeling unheard and invalidated, because it shifts the subject away from their concerns.
The way out of the fight is by saying your wants and desires and reflecting your partner’s. For example: “I want you to respond faster to me and I know you don’t want to have to feel tied to your phone.” Remember to work as a team: “How can we work together to find a solution.”
Focus on problem-solving over blame and defensiveness. “What needs to be done to improve the situation”.
Remember to validate your partners perspective: “We can’t agree on the exact words, but I can see that you feel resentment about the situation.” Avoid getting stuck in details and focus on the broader themes of meaning: “Instead of trying to convince each other of facts, let’s talk about what we are really trying to say to each other. I am trying to say that a lot of the time I don’t feel heard. What are you trying to tell me?”
Empathy Matters When Considering Impact vs Intent
Using empathy and understanding, “I understand why it bothers you when I am late. I can see it leaves you feeling alone and anxious. I am going to work on being on time.”
A word about validation, because it communicates empathy, it means that you put your ability to feel and understand your partner into words. You do not have to agree with the facts when you validate. You just need to be able to understand them and feel them. Validating your partner is part of loving them.
Words are important in validation, but authenticity is more important.
Assert yourself when necessary. “I have a different way of making the bed. Sometimes I might not do it your way, but to feel close I need to have space to do things my way.”
Use attachment language, “Our relationship and you are so important to me that I am willing to talk about this hard topic.”
The next time you and your partner have a disagreement, see if you can stop, take a breath, regulate yourself and figure out what’s going on for you, ask yourself: What do I need? What makes me feel safe about my position? When you have sorted that out, see if you can do the same for your partner. See if you can jump into their experience and see things through their eyes and feel some of what they might be feeling. Next, communicate to them what you find by stepping into their experience. Tell them you understand their thoughts and feelings, even if you don’t agree with their approach. This is validation. This creates emotional safety and is where problem solving can be most productive.
By creating emotional safety through validation, empathy and understanding it doesn’t have to become THE FIGHT.
Reach out to Evolve today to get out of your negative cycle.