How Threat Emotions Cause Us To Misread Our Partner

Love, Self

The Mindset of Anxiety and Anger

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.

Any time Juanita got suspicious, she believed this was a sign that Alvaro was up to   something fishy. She was certain her intuitive “sixth sense” correctly detected his wrongdoing.

2. When we feel hurt, we believe it was intended

When we feel hurt by our partner, we presume it was deliberate. Taking things personally is an adaptive aspect of our fight/flight reflex since it mobilizes us to act protectively.

Even if we’re a bit unclear whether our partner purposely meant to harm us, we nonetheless suppose s/he was perfectly willing to. After all, s/he is well aware of our desires or sensitivities yet callously ignored them. It seems implausible that it could have been accidental. What we forget is that we can feel upset or wounded without our spouse intending that outcome.

Because she was chastised throughout childhood, Jan was determined to never repeat that behavior when raising her own family. When she and her teenage daughter started arguing, her husband Michael commented that she was too critical. Jan felt stung and thought he meant to hurt her, given that this was a sore spot of hers.

Mistakenly assuming ill will is all the more likely because we’re limited in our capacity to know another person’s motives. Since what’s going on in our partner’s mind can’t be directly observed, we fill in the blank to correspond with our misgivings.

Limbic activation is – unfortunately – why we hesitate to trust our partner’s favorable deeds in the aftermath of conflicts. If we’re still on alert when s/he extends an olive branch or complies with our requests, and we can’t see into her/his heart, we doubt that positive responses are earnest.

Following a tense interaction, Paul became demonstratively soft and caring towards Jean. But Jean folded her arms across her chest and scoffed that Paul was disingenuous.

The hidden quality of motives leads to another misinterpretation we make when threatened. That’s suspecting that anything our partner isn’t overtly revealing is being deliberately withheld. We warily question what our spouse is not disclosing and why it’s concealed.

Though Terrell was reserved temperamentally, Jasmine feared he was calculating in what he divulged. She watched for omitted information when he recounted his activities. If she didn’t know everything about his day, she anticipated he was surreptitiously planning an affair.

3. Under threat, our perceptions narrow to black or white categories

Under threat, we think in simplified black or white terms. This binary shift occurs so that we can definitively classify the source as either friend or foe, the situation as safe or unsafe. Anything vague that falls in the middle is mislabeled as dangerous. We instinctually over-assess threat and give up precision in order to assure security.

Why is it so common that when couples fight they make the absolute allegations of “you always…” or “you never…?” This isn’t just a debate tactic. When the mind is steeped in fear or anger, it has trouble accessing “sometimes.” At that moment, we can’t recall instances when our partner acted differently because that recollection would let down our guard. The reliable protection is all or nothing, black or white.

Early in their relationship, Lauren was deceptive

This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.