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Intention versus Impact | Lambert Couples Therapy

Intention versus Impact

We love this saying because it underlies so many of the breakdowns that couples have:

We argue for our intentions, but others judge us on our impact.

Why do we find it so meaningful in our practice? When we say things that upset or offend the person we love, our immediate reaction is to explain our real intention. Because we rarely mean to hurt or provoke our partner, we want to set the record straight. Something has gone wrong, we feel misunderstood—but our intentions were good!

Our partner doesn’t want to hear about our intentions. Feeling wounded, they want us to care about the outcome of our actions, the impact. They need us to listen, empathize, ask questions, and maybe even apologize. Only when our partner feels truly heard can we explain our real intentions in a way our partner can absorb.

In our practice, we often hear clients exclaim, “I didn’t intend to say that” or “I didn’t mean to make you feel that way.” From there, it’s a short hop to “that’s not what happened!” and “that’s not true!” as old hurts resurface, conflict takes hold, and love beats a hasty retreat.

Here’s an example:

Mary leaves her dishes in the sink (again). She knows it’s one of Bob’s pet peeves, but she has an important phone call to make. She’s in a hurry; she’ll wash the dishes later.

Bob sees the dishes in the sink and Mary on her way out of the kitchen. He’s triggered but doesn’t want to come down hard on her because it feels petty. They’ve argued about this more than once. Did she forget? In a restrained tone, he says, “You have dishes in the sink. Maybe take care of them before they start to smell.” Mary immediately tenses up. After all, she was planning to do the dishes following her call, and now she feels attacked. She reacts, “You never let up! You’re always looking for a reason to criticize me. I can’t even leave a plate in the sink for five minutes without you having a fit. I can’t win with you!”

Mary isn’t the only one who’s upset; Bob feels attacked, too. His intention wasn’t to criticize, just to remind Mary. Bob feels he was trying to be helpful; why can’t Mary see he had good intentions? He tries to explain, “Babe, I was just trying to help…”

At that moment, Mary doesn’t need to know that Bob intended to help. She’s angry and feels like she’s under siege. Focusing on his intentions, Bob missed the impact of his actions. He’s not acknowledging the outcome—the woman he loves feels attacked. The magic happens when Bob pivots and turns his attention to the impact for Mary:

“I can see you’re upset, and I am sorry. I know I don’t need to remind you about every single plate. It must feel like nagging and criticism. Next time I see dishes, I’ll remind myself that you will get to them shortly because you always do. I love you, Mary.”

That’s how Bob diffuses the situation. Rather than defending his good intentions or explaining himself, he demonstrates that he cares about Mary and their relationship. He can always talk about his intentions later but not in the moment.

What about the impact of Mary’s rant on Bob? If it bothered Bob, and it likely did, he can talk to Mary about it later. One conversation at a time.

We judge ourselves by our intentions. However, our partner will always judge us in the moment based on the impact of those words. By paying attention to the impact rather than defending our intention, our resistance softens, connection returns and the relationship shifts to love.

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