Mind-Reading: Don’t Try This at Home
Although most people realize that it is not reasonable to expect others to read their minds, that does not always prevent them from feeling hurt or outraged when they don’t. Many of us possess a (usually unconscious) belief that when it comes to intimate relationships, mind reading is not only a legitimate expectation, but that a failure to do so and to take appropriate action accordingly, is grounds to find one’s partner guilty of being unloving. Such a finding can result in a serious or even catastrophic breakdown in the relationship. What we consciously think and what we unconsciously believe are often misaligned and in such cases, hidden expectations often trump rational thought. This can, as many of us have found out the hard way, lead to (ahem) “difficult” situations. For example:
Karen came home from work at the end of the day. When her husband Peter greeted her, she responded with cold silence.
Peter: Is anything wrong?
Karen: Why? You don’t care.
P: What do you mean? Of course I care. Karen, what’s the matter?
K: You knew I had tests done at the doctor’s today.
P: Yes, I knew. How did it go?
K: If you do really care, you sure have a strange way of showing it. You never called to ask me how it went and you knew that I was very worried about this test.
P: I did call and you weren’t available so I left a message.
K: Right. You called once and left a ten second message. You didn’t try very hard to reach me. One call! If you really cared you would have called back. I really needed you and you weren’t there. I knew I couldn’t really count on you when I needed you. (She begins to cry).
P: (Beginning to get angry) I’m sorry that you feel uncared for Karen. I can’t always know what you need or expect from me. I made an effort to reach you. I guess that wasn’t enough, huh? (He shakes his head back and forth, throws his hands up and walks away).
If you’ve ever been on either side of a scenario similar to this, you’re not alone. And you know how it feels. Not particularly good for either partner. The accuser often feels abandoned, unloved and unacknowledged and the accused may feel shamed and guilty and often becomes defensive or angry. This is a prescription for conflict and possibly gridlock. Unfortunately, these interactions occur all too frequently, because of the universal nature of our tendency to make assumptions on the basis of “invisible expectations” many of which are based upon culturally-sanctioned myths such as “if you really loved me you would …”
Accusations like this are often made in an effort to avoid the possibility of being vulnerable to rejection or to the hurt feelings that can come from asking more directly for what we want or need from a partner. “But I shouldn’t have to ask for something that would be naturally provided by someone who loved me” is the response we often hear from people. To this we say that perhaps it’s true that your partner doesn’t love you and doesn’t want you to feel cared for and appreciated. It is, however also possible that he (or she) has other reasons for not responding in accordance with the way a genuinely loving person would in this situation, such as:
You each have different understandings of what constitutes “sufficient” effort to attempt to accommodate a perceived need. Or
Your partner wouldn’t feel the way that you do if she were in your situation. Or
Your partner gave you what he would want if he were in your situation.
Your partner was preoccupied with something that was absorbing his attention at the time. Or
Your partner hasn’t stopped loving you but is just having a bad day and doesn’t have as much energy or attention available for you as you need at this time. Or
She may actually not be feeling loving towards you, for any number of reasons at this time. Feelings of love are not constant and are sometimes interrupted by other emotions and distractions.
If there are patterns of consistent negligence, disrespect, or callousness in a relationship, there may be good reason for concern and doubt regarding a partner’s degree of caring. A failure to mind read however does not constitute legitimate grounds to condemn someone for being unloving.
In cases where there is concern or doubt regarding the quality of one’s partner’s feelings, there are other, more effective ways of dealing with the situation than by projecting accusations, since doing so increases the likelihood of defensiveness on both sides, which has the same effect as pouring gasoline on a fire.
The “If you loved me you would…” assertion is often a defense to avoid the exposure of other more vulnerable needs and concerns. It can feel safer to criticize or fault your partner than it does to acknowledge certain needs or the pain of feeling disappointment when our desires go unfulfilled. Expressing in very specific, rather global terms the nature of those desires helps to minimize the likelihood of your partner feeling attacked and consequently enhances the likelihood that they will be more open to listening non-defensively and will be more responsive to your concerns. It may require focused effort to see beyond your hurt or frustration to identify your unmet needs and desires, but naming them, first to yourself and then expressing them to your partner in a respectful, non-judgmental way, will create a very different outcome than the scenario that Karen and Peter experienced.
Some examples of unfulfilled needs and desires include: wanting more recognition or acknowledgment,
more emotional, physical or sexual intimacy,
caring and attentive listening to our concerns and ideas,
help with the housework, childcare, or other domestic responsibilities.
time together to address “unfinished business” and other issues in the relationship that need attention,
planning and having more fun and play time together.
Even couples who have been together for decades don’t possess the ability to read each others’ minds. It’s impossible to ever know another person that well. There are always (hopefully) going to be surprises in relationships which keeps things from getting too predictable and uninteresting. As the old saying goes, to assume, makes an ass out of u and me. Arrogance has to do with thinking that we know something to be true, when in fact, it may not be. In the arena of relationships, the antidote to arrogance is humility. And humility requires the courage to risk vulnerability and emotional honesty. If that sounds like a lot, it is; more in fact than many people are up for. But for those who are, the payoffs far outweigh the risks. More often than not, the consequences that we fear don’t occur and we are relieved and surprised that things have turned out very differently than we had anticipated.
Some surprises can be quite delightful. Making assumptions can be a short-cut we take to avoid doing the work and taking the risk and time that it takes to inquire more deeply into the needs and desires of our partner or to avoid the vulnerability that comes from revealing those deeper feelings to him. What we believe to be the path of least resistance often turns out to be the path of greatest resistance and what we think is saving us time and face often ends up costing us more of both.
Bloom, L. (2014). Mind-Reading: Don’t Try This at Home. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 23, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/relationship-skills/2013/08/mind-reading-dont-try-this-at-home/