How can you ignore me like that, I work so hard at being nice to you.”… “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I can’t believe you’re doing the dishes when we wanted to spend time together watching TV!”…” It will only take a second, don’t’ get so upset over such a little thing.”

“My opinion doesn’t count, I feel like a second-class citizen in this relationship”. …“Oh, here we go again, I can’t do anything right.”

“You spend so much money on things that are not important; you’re so selfish”. …“I work hard, and it is my money”.

“You never want to have sex”. …”and you just want it all the time, you’re a sex addict.”

Interactions like these always involve one or both partners “taking things personally”.  In the above brief scenarios, each partner is feeling angry, frustrated, upset, anxious, etc., and accuses, blames, yells, criticizes, calls each other names, etc.  Most marriage counselors know people cannot negotiate a win-win solution to a problem in this state.  Typically, counselors will tell you to step back and cool off.  That’s not good enough.

I think you have to understand what is happening to you psychologically when this kind of interaction happens so that you can proceed with negotiating or problem solving.

In the incident shown in the red box, Jesse probably did not listen attentively to something Sara was saying.  She portrays or characterizes his action as “ignoring” her, followed by her self-serving statement about her niceness.  This, of course, is intended to bolster the way she is experiencing Jesse’s action; after all, she is accusing him of not being nice to her.  While not stated, Sara is likely feeling angry and/or hurt.

Sara is characterizing Jesse’s action, not describing it.  A description of Jesse’s action would be something like, “It seems to me that you are not attending to what I am talking about.”    Or, “I would like to have some time together, I am not sure that is what you want.”  This is a relationship issue, not a Sara-issue.ID-100207338

While Jesse did not respond to Sara in a way that is important to her (listening to her when she wanted him to do so or spending time with her), her characterization of his action as ignoring her is personal.

Jesse, not really thinking that he deliberately tried to ignore Sara and likely caught off guard by the criticism, dismisses what she is saying (“I don’t know what you’re talking about”), probably in self-defense or self-protectively.  Thus, Sara’s concern does not get addressed because both now are defending their positions. They are now in CONFLICT with one another.

Taking something personally happens when you portray your partner’s action only in terms of how you experience it.  How you experience someone else’s actions, while important to you, is not the only way to describe other’s actions. 

When we are taking something someone does personally, i.e. reacting not responding, we are feeling psychologically “threatened”.   What is this about?  It is most often an ill-defined feeling of “not being good enough” in some way, not important enough, not smart enough, not respected enough, not good-looking enough etc., etc., etc.

Your interpretation of your partner’s action (inaction) is what “causes” your feeling of threat, his/her action, while a problem to you, is not the threat. 

This pattern of interaction can occur over and over in a relationship without ever identifying the problems that Sara and Jesse are trying to address because they end up in conflict.  Conflict is not resolvable because you two are not dealing with the issue (not being attended to in a way you like, checking sports scores when having time together, partner not listening, how money is spent, etc.). You both are dealing with your personalized reactions to each other in a defensive or self-protective manner.

There are several definite steps that Jesse and Sara must take to end the conflict and move on to addressing Sara’s concern:

  • Recognize that you are reacting, usually emotionally, to your partner
  • Recognize that you are characterizing your partner’s action(s) not describing them
  • Identify in what way you are feeling threatened (I’m not important enough for him to pay attention to me).
  • Understand that when you are feeling threatened, you will characterize your partner in a negative way that he/she will not see as true of him/her.
  • Reframe in your mind that this is a relationship issue, you are good enough, important enough, etc.
  • Remember: It’s not about you or him, it’s about us and how we get along.
  • Describe what is the issue (not being attended to, checking the sports scores, etc.)

Once you have regained your perspective on the situation, you can better determine if there is a relationship issue.  When you determine this, you can begin the process of negotiating collaboratively about the problem or issue at hand.  (See posts on the pursuit of collaboration and the process of negotiation)

There are 3 thumbnails below that may be helpful to you in understanding and managing taking things personally: (1) understanding where psychological threat comes from, (2) a worksheet to inventory when you are taking things personally and, (3) managing insecurities.

Taking Personally 1 Taking Personally 2 Taking Personally 3

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