Just how well do we read our intimate partners? As long as we’re composed, we’re generally pretty good at it. But whenever our threat emotions (i.e. anxiety and anger) are triggered, accuracy goes right out the window.
Emotion-driven misinterpretations spell trouble for relationships. They lead to escalating accusations, disappearing trust and constricting hearts. If only we could recognize how emotions shape perceptions, we could restore close connections with our partner. That’s the aim of this primer.
The Alerted Brain
Running unconsciously in the background, our brain has an alarm system alert for threats to physical and psychological needs. At the instant we register a threat, a host of coping responses commence. Cortisol and adrenalin are secreted. Breathing and heart rate quicken, sending oxygen and sugar to our limbs to ready us for fight or flight. Neural activity increases in the brain’s limbic section, generating threat-countering emotions and additional interpretations of danger. These processes work together and impact one another. Thoughts directly affect emotions (a link that is the focus of Cognitive Therapy). The equally important reverse direction – how threat emotions influence our thinking – is the subject this article addresses.
The function of anxiety and anger is to viscerally warn of a danger so that we take self-protective measures. To succeed at this task, we’re designed to over-estimate threat. The only surefire guarantee that actual risks are never missed is giving ambiguous threats the same credence as definite ones. Better to be safe than sorry. This evolutionary adaptation was vital for survival on the savannah, but it’s another story entirely with our relationships.
Misinterpreting Our Partner When We’re Anxious/Angry/Hurt
Because we’re profoundly dependent on our partner for basic psychological needs, we’re easily triggered in intimate relationships. Nowhere else do we feel quite so attached – or rejected, quite so respected – or unvalued. Whenever these needs seem jeopardized, our limbic system can flare, and anxiety, anger and hurt arise. Such emotions dramatically color our interpretations whereby we automatically – and often erroneously – tend to view our partner as untrustworthy, uncaring, unfair or disrespectful. Here, in greater detail, are 9 overlapping ways that happens.
1. When we feel anxious or angry, we’re certain there’s a legitimate basis
Anxiety is nature’s indicator that peril lurks. When it appears, we’re convinced in our gut that we’re endangered. The emotion itself is regarded as proof that a bona fide peril exists. “If I feel upset with my partner, s/he must have done something.”
But that’s not necessarily the case. While the experience of anxiety or anger is indisputably real, the cause we attribute may or may not be. We’re fully capable of feeling anxious even when our partner’s actions have nothing to do with danger.
Donna got a text from a male customer. When Gareth noticed, he immediately became anxious. He took his fear as evidence there was a romantic interest in her life.