You love your partner and you value your relationship.

But… the two of you have developed a habit of falling into fights more and more frequently. It may have even grown so problematic that you shudder when you hear them pull into the driveway, anticipating the inevitable argument. Whether it’s financial stress, political differences, cultural divides, hard parenting decisions – you name it, you’re probably going to argue about it.

What’s over-personalization?

Maybe some of that arguing is due to what I call over-personalization – when you take too personally what your partner has done or said, or not done or not said. You make their behavior and choices about you.

“If he loved me more, then he would...”

“If she respected me, she wouldn’t have...

“If he really cared about the kids and me, he would…

You interpret their actions to be about you, maybe even to the point you think they are intentionally attempting to hurt you. This is your mind going on an unnecessary rampage – deciding your partner is the enemy, and you have to protect yourself in any way possible.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth (unless you’ve got a far worse problem…). Happily, there is something that can be done. In fact, all you have to do is ask yourself one question.

The question that will help…

There’s a question that will help you step out of the fighting pattern you’re in if you so choose. Before you allow yourself to sink into any negative thinking like the questions above, ask yourself the following:

What do I know about my partner that would explain their behavior that has nothing to do with me?”

It’s so simple, but can truly be an eye-opener. Here’s a fairly recent example from my own life.

One early spring Saturday, my husband and I were shopping at our local grocery store. He decided he wanted to buy some hanging plants for the deck. We had cold groceries in the car and I had a bunch of stuff on my to-do list for the weekend, but I wanted to be nice and I figured he’d be quick. So I told him, “Sure, why not?” And we headed to the nursery.

What I didn’t consider was the sheer volume of plants that were available. He ended spending what was, for me, a tremendously long time comparing and analyzing. (Not for him.. he loves nurseries!)

I began getting a little panicky. We were in the back of a warm tent and the place was stuffed with colorful plants, smells galore. Toss together my problem with getting squeamish in crowed places plus a bit of claustrophobia AND with my impatience about the time it was taking, I needed to get out of there. Thus, some serious marital discord was potentially in the making.

My husband could tell I was getting agitated. I was passive-aggressively sighing and looking at my watch. But he was having a marvelous time, being the horticulturist in the family.

Tension was building.

What if he’d thought, “Well if she really cared about what I good time I’ve clearly having in this innocent excursion, she wouldn’t want to leave…”

Or I decided, “If he really understood me, he would remember that this kind of situation makes me panicked…” and we would’ve been off to the races.

Instead, I walked over and said something like, “I’m freaking out a little. Sorry. Take your time.” And he responded, “It’ll be just another five minutes. Thanks.”

Disaster avoided.

Following my own advice.. 

Why did I handle it that way? Because I followed my own advice. I didn’t take it personally and asked myself the simple question, “What do I know about him that would explain his behavior that has nothing to do with me?”

He was immersed in an activity he was thoroughly enjoying; not only was he not thinking about me or my panic, it would never occur to him I would get panicked in a darn greenhouse. He knows I don’t do big box stores very well, but in a large covered outdoor surrounded by beautiful greenery? He wouldn’t have given it a thought.

It’s amazing how in small situations like this, things can escalate and huge fights can take place.

I know. I’ve had them.

It takes remembering and practicing…

So, next time you feel yourself getting irritated, you can practice. Let’s say you’ve asked your partner to call you when he reaches his destination. And it’s two hours past the time he’s supposed to get there. You start to feel abandoned, begin to doubt your importance to them, and mentally begin to compose a scathing.

Stop and ask yourself the question, “What do I know about my partner that would explain their behavior that has nothing to do with me?”

“Well, he’s forgetful. He forgets to charge his cell phone, and it’s probably dead. Or he gets really involved in whatever is going on around him. You are always the one who remembers to call, and have had to remind him to make calls. He’ll remember when he is going to bed.”

Anything but taking it personally.

Or the next time your partner overdraws the checking account. Instead of immediately saying that she’s doing that to piss you off, that she has no respect for how hard you work and is being selfish? Stop. Ask the question. Remember that she grew up in a home where she was not taught anything about finances and that admitted that she struggles with money and needs help. (Probably not from you, by the way, but a more objective teacher.)

You don’t wake up and hope you can make your partner miserable…

Most of us want to get along and have the best assumed of us, to be given the benefit of the doubt. Offer the same to your partner. It’s an easy question to ask yourself, so give it a try.

It might make a world of difference.



You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!

My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression has arrived and you can order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life.

And there’s a new way to send me a message! You can record by clicking below and ask your question or make a comment. You’ll have 90 seconds to do so and that time goes quickly. By recording, you’re giving SelfWork (and me) permission to use your voice on the podcast. I’ll look forward to hearing from you!

Originally published on  April 7, 2018; updated and republished on September 24, 2022.

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