Mind Reading in Relationships

Ever felt annoyed that your partner didn't already know that you were waiting for them to wash the sink full of dishes before you became fed up enough with looking at it and just did it yourself? After all, she/he was the one who last filled the sink, they must have just known you'd eventually crack and be the one to clean them right?

Or ever felt offended that your partner didn't call before making an extra stop at the store before coming over or arriving home from work? Maybe this is something they do often and should have learned after all this time together that they should call or text if they are running late? Shouldn't they have known that dinner would be waiting and getting cold?

Many people in committed relationships may expect that after spending months and especially years together, that their partner should know certain things about them by now. They believe with conviction that the amount of time spent in the relationship increases the ability for that person to read their silent cues, their minds, and have an expert understanding of their routines and usual behaviors. After all, shouldn't they just know by now? The answer is simple and hard to hear for some: No, they should not. This unhealthy expectation is also known as a cognitive distortion (Beck, Aaron, 1989). Cognitive distortions are thoughts that tend to cause individuals to perceive reality inaccurately, which can lead to ongoing problems in relationships.

No matter how mature the relationship is, it is always important to communicate openly, directly, (and I should also mention kindly) to your partner about your needs and expectations of them. It is easy to take this concept for granted but I am telling you, do not. Daily life is busy and work, family, friends, pets, and health concerns all compete for our attention, and that is not including everything that one person may be juggling on any given day, that is just the baseline for most of us. Just like you wouldn't expect your boss to just know that it's the anniversary of your grandmother's death after working years together, and that he or she should go a little easier on you this week, do not expect that your partner is always in sync with your mood, expectations, behaviors, or thoughts when you are not explaining your present state of being or needs to them.

I do offer a theory on how this cognitive distortion called "Mind Reading" occurs in intimate relationships and I believe it is often times birthed from the courtship period. While it is true that during the courtship phase of a relationship, many couples can often finish one another's sentences, predict each other’s behaviors with frightening accuracy, and anticipate their needs as well as some mystical oracle, there may be an explanation to why this does not end up being the case as the relationship matures. In the beginning of our relationships, we are usually hyper sensitive to our interactions with our partner. We want to appeal to them consistently and they desire to do the same so that our primal mating urges can be satisfied and we can secure a  healthy mate. In this hyper sensitive state we are vigilant with our search for the other person's cues, body language, communication, and behavioral patterns which will aid us in our greatest acts of consideration so that we can present our ideal selves to our potential mate and show them that we are a caring, nurturing, loving, and therefore, viable mate. This may sound like manipulation but it is something beyond our control, we execute these processes automatically, without intent. Once long term commitment is established and this honeymoon period transitions into a more comfortable, sustainable partnership, the hypersensitivity of anticipating the other person's needs and state of being dissipates, not completely, but significantly. This is ok, this is normal, and this is a natural and healthy transition. We could not function and remain responsible in other areas of our lives if we were constantly focusing 100% of our effort and attention on anticipating our partner's every need, it is not practical. If you ever look back at the time of your relationship where you were courting one another you may recall being neglectful of friends, job responsibilities, family members, etc., because you were completely enthralled by that other person. 

What is more concerning than having an unhealthy expectation that your partner be able to read your mind is the accompanying belief that failure to do so on their part signifies something bad; that they do not care, are behaving selfishly, are being vindictive, or hurtful. Often times much more comes along with the thought of "they should know by now that I am...." or "they should know by now that I need...." The following thoughts are usually conclusively damning and negative and go something like this: "they should know by now that Sunday afternoons are for spending time together and not for going out with friends, they just want to start a fight and make me feel upset by making other plans." or "they should know by now that I need extra support around Veteran's Day because of my brother passing away overseas, they are just too wrapped up in their own lives and don't make me a priority." Now, these thoughts are only unfair if those needs or expectations were never expressed before. If the partners had previously agreed to reserve Sundays for couple's activities and the partner scheduled something with friends without running it by their partner first; or if the partner in the second scenario was told explicitly that Veteran's Day is hard for them and their needs were ignored, than the damning thoughts that followed may be justified. However, for the individuals who do not communicate what they need or what they are going through, they can only look to themselves to resolve how they are feeling toward their partner. It cannot be overstated: Your partner cannot read your mind; you must communicate directly, and avoid taking for granted what you believe they should already know. 

Any time you find yourself expecting your partner to read your mind, or thinking that should just know something by now, explore with them whether they do know what seems obvious to you. Do so in a non accusatory way in order to avoid unnecessary conflict. Take responsibility when discussing the expectation for example: "I realize I am always avoiding making plans on Sundays because I feel like that is a day for us to spend time together as a couple, but what do you think?” or "I know that you know how my brother died but I sometimes feel extra vulnerable and am more quiet, in need of affection, and unable to deal with stress as well around Veteran's day and sometimes I feel like I need extra support and I look to you for that, have you picked up on that? ” Avoid using words like "always" or "never" which can put people on the defensive. Saying something like: “I always expect you to be home with me on Sundays and you never are” or “I am always upset around Veteran's day and you never notice even though you know how my brother died” will only force your partner to respond from a position of attack and will not foster effective communication.

The take away here is to remember that your partner does not have the ability to read your mind, just as you are not able to read theirs. Communicating needs and your present state of being can only help your loved one become a better partner. It would also benefit you to encourage them to share their needs with you as well. Try asking your loved one at the beginning of the day “How can I give you what you need today?” More than likely they’ll answer you (maybe after some initial shock) and ask you the same thing. Be prepared to give a kind, direct answer.