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Resolving conflicts

He said/she said: Moods and misunderstandings

Mixed-up assumptions are a common culprit when there's a conflict between spouses, lovers, family members or friends. We think we know what the other intended, and we react sometimes with anger or hurt. But, often, we've assumed wrong, and the battle begins. No one wins, and each is left feeling hurt, angry and misunderstood. Resolving conflicts takes a little effort. Toss depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder into the mix, and it may take a little more effort. But with practice, we can learn to communicate in ways that leave each partner feeling heard and valued.

She: Dinner's ruined. You could call when you're going to be late. You never give a thought to how I'm inconvenienced. You always take me for granted. He: And you're always nagging me. I worked late. I thought you'd want me to go for the overtime. Anyway, I didn't even get a minute to stop and call. When we're embroiled in a "he said/she said" conflict, it's important to try to identify what assumptions are fueling our emotions and realize that what he or she said or did may not be as important as how it made us feel. Working with our partner on fixing how we feel can help to repair the problem and find ways to minimize similar conflicts in the future.

Examine the assumptions that are fueling your emotions

Separate impact from intentions. What did the other person actually say or do? How did it make you feel? What assumption are you making about what the other person intended? Express your assumptions and explain that you're trying to check out the validity of what you think. "It felt like you meant to embarrass me, but I don't think you would do that." When we think our intentions were good, we feel that our partner should not feel hurt or angry and that it's "her problem." But her feelings are valid and the conflict needs to be addressed.

Focus on the impact, not the intentions

Labeling can disguise our feelings and force the other person to defend themselves: Words like "You're irresponsible." "And you're a nag." may really mean "When you don't call me when you're going to be late for dinner, I feel frustrated;" "When you criticize me, I feel put-down." The second set of statements gives you a starting place for a healing conversation.

Don't underestimate the power of a few caring words

  • "I can understand how you would feel that way."
  • "That must have been frustrating."
  • "I'm sorry."

  • Be aware of the way communication can be filtered through a mood disorder.

    Do a reality check. Thoughts and emotions can be deceptive and perspective skewed when moods are at work. “I’m saying (this)…Is that what you’re hearing me say?” If a loved one is down, up or anxious, it may be best to postpone a conversation until a better time.

    Labeling emotions, such as anger or excitement, as symptoms of their depression, mania or anxiety is invalidating, and creates resentment and mistrust. Don’t say "You're really overreacting. Have you been taking your meds?" You can't know whether her feelings have anything to do with her disorder. It's okay to have your own feelings, while empathizing with your partner. "I know you can't help feeling down, but I'm feeling frustrated."

    “One of the most unique challenges to communication for a person with bipolar or major depression," says Patricia Berliner, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York state, “is that the energy it takes to formulate ideas; translate feelings, fears, emotions and thoughts into words; then express those words and have them understood, via verbal or non-verbal communication, is a monumental task."