Written by Kate Pauley






differential processing in relationships couple counseling A common experience in intimate partnerships is when each person has a distinctly different way of processing and organizing information. This can lead to misunderstandings, unintentional hurt, and patterns of conflict that build over years.

It’s hard to know how to talk about differences in processing because often we don’t know that is what’s going on, but we can see the impact. These are just some of the ways that differential processing can show up in intimate partnerships.



Couples consistently talk about how they both remember a situation differently. One person is confident something was said in a certain tone, the other is adamant it sounded like this instead, and if the tone had just been right then there wouldn’t have been a fight. This happens with body language, vocabulary, timing, subject matter…you name it. This can also sound like differences in what is perceived to be a significant or minor problem, which looks like a misalignment of importance. Couples who repeatedly have different perceptions of situations often feel misunderstood by their partner.

Object permanence:

This may not sound familiar right away, but object permanence more simply put is “out of sight, out of mind”. Some of the most common ways this shows up in partnerships is an imbalance on who initiates conversations, remembering important conversations, who knows what groceries you need from the store, when one partner is doing more household tasks because the other partner didn’t notice the need, or making plans.

Task fulfillment:

Similar to object permanence, when one person in the relationship is more likely to notice things out of place or need their space organized a certain way, they are more likely the one to initiate or maintain that order. This can create roles where one partner is in charge of delegating tasks as a way of getting help, and the other role often has to ask what needs done or how to do it to the satisfactory standard.


Awareness threads throughout all of these topics and more. When one partner feels that they are more aware of the environment, it can create an imbalance of responsibility. This sometimes is described as a feeling of “parenting” their partner. Conversely, the partner who is perceived as less aware can feel over-observed or criticized because they are getting a disproportionate amount of feedback about their behavior.

This also shows up with emotional awareness. When one partner experiences themselves as more connected to their emotions, they are often more likely to notice emotional shifts in their partner or ask for more emotional attunement from their partner. In response, the other partner can feel overwhelmed, like they’re walking on eggshells, or that their never doing enough to meet their partner’s needs.


Couples frequently report processing differences as a reflection of a gender difference. Responding to the relationship or the environment as a reflection of gendered norms can become a default explanation to make sense of the differences, but it rarely changes the problem or makes either partner feel more understood.


Do any of these sound familiar?

Understanding the way you and your partner process the world around you can help de-mystify why some conflicts keep coming up and help you better understand why you’re getting stuck. If you’re interested in learning more about how to uncover these differences, couples counseling can be a great resource!


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