Expecting Your Mate to Read Your Mind


“He/she should know what I want.”

Therapists make a fortune from those who believe that everyone in the world is intuitive; that each person is born with the gift of being able to peer into the mind of the other. And, most importantly, that a person who really loves you (or even a very good friend) will know what you want without it having to be put into words.

Such people come to couples therapists expecting that the counselor will be able to train the patient’s spouse to do this. The problem, as they see it, is in the other, not in themselves.

There are a few iffy assumptions here:

  1. Any reasonably intelligent person (I’m including men here, if you will permit me to put that word together with the word “intelligent”) has an innate capacity to know the wants and desires of a partner who has not directly stated them.
  2. Such a person is further able to know the order in which such requirements are to be fulfilled, despite the absence of any ranking of those priorities by their partner.
  3. The same individual is always listening for hints that might suggest what the lover wants and in what order the lover wants them. He/she is terrific at “getting” the subtlest of those hints because he/she is a master of understanding tone of voice, body language, and even silences.
  4. The fulfillment of an unstated desire is worth more than getting what is wanted by asking for it directly. Having to ask for the thing you want somehow diminishes its value.

Are these assumptions correct?

No, no, no, and no.

Partners, even those who are sensitive and devoted, have only an approximate idea of some of the things that would please the spouse. If they don’t know the items on your list, they certainly can’t get the expected order of importance right.

It would be nice if your friend were telepathic, but his/her lack of capacity to read your mind should not diminish the value of what he tries to do to please you, even if you have to give him directions along the way. Isn’t there something appealing in a person whose affection for you is so great that he is willing to make the effort to understand something — do something that is not intuitive and doesn’t come easily?

And, do remember, your loved one is not always paying attention, as in the following cartoon showing a long-time patient and his therapist:

"Oops! I've just deleted all your files. Can you repeat everything you've every told me?"

“Oops! I just deleted all your files. Can you repeat everything you’ve ever told me?”

A few practical suggestions (follow them at your own risk):

  1. Ask your spouse to tell you what he/she thinks will make you happy. Do this with the iPads and smartphones put away, the TV and radio off, no music in the background, the wine bottles corked, and the kids asleep or out of the house. Assuming that he doesn’t say, “Nothing will make you happy,” you are off to a good start: you are talking without distractions.
  2. If that question is too broad, be more specific. Ask your spouse what he imagines would make you happy in one or two of the following areas: housework, taking care of the kids, running errands, making a living, time spent together, romance/sex, attitude, and whatever else you can think of that is important.
  3. Don’t condemn, mock, or laugh. Don’t criticize. Don’t start any sentence with the words “How can you not know…” Just listen. Take notes if necessary.
  4. Don’t assume that you can read his/her mind any more than he can read yours. Don’t assume the worst possible motives for his failure to give you what you want. Recognize and praise what he has done right that you might otherwise tend to minimize or ignore.
  5. Choose only one or two of the areas on which you wish to concentrate. (I realize I’m repeating this, but you should try to start small). Tell your mate where he is right and where he needs a bit of help. Give him that help. Tell him precisely what you want. That is, if you want him to take out the garbage by 8PM without a reminder on Tuesday night, say so. If you also want him to replace the garbage bags, say so. Don’t assume anything. Make your desires as explicit and behaviorally descriptive as possible. Remember, you are dealing with someone you believe to have missed a few years in school.
  6. Ask the other to paraphrase what you’ve said. He will probably not do a great job at this. Keep at it until you feel that he actually knows what you are asking for because he has specified all the details in his own words, not because he says “OK, I’ll do that.”
  7. Don’t ask for the world. If you want a man to put the toilet seat down every time he uses the W/C, you should realize that (for certain men) asking for a round-the-world tour would be more easily achieved.
  8. Be sensitive to the possibility that he may stop listening to you if you go on too long, start hammering him, or if he has other things on his mind. It is better for your conversation to be relatively brief with full attention than longer, but with periods of inattention.
  9. If you are getting exasperated try to end the conversation and make plans to pick it up again. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
  10. End on a high note. Say thanks and mean it. He/she is trying to get this right.

One last word. This will require you to change, too. Indeed, it is just possible that the love of your life fails to do some of the things you want because he doesn’t think you are attentive to his own desires. In other words, that the two of you are involved in a kind of tit-for-tat game of withholding and passive-aggressive expressions of anger.

You will also have to recognize that you too have a limited power to read his mind; that it is only fair that you permit him to go through the same kind of 10-point exercise I just described, allowing him to determine whether you are fully aware of his wishes and giving him an opportunity to set you straight.

Being direct but not vicious is an art that must be perfected for relationships to survive in the best possible way. You won’t get back to “the days of wine and roses” by hitting your spouse over the head with a mallet, however tempting that might be. You want him to look at you with stars of love in his eyes, not seeing stars after the blow you just delivered to his noggin.

It is not a subtle point, I know. Still, I had to make it because otherwise you would have had to read my mind!

seeing stars

The top image is a Poster of Alexander Seer, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Do You Understand Me? On the Dangers of the IM

In the course of conversation, serious or casual, we often ask, “Do you understand?” The conventional wisdom tells us that if the question is followed by a “yes” answer, then real understanding exists.

I say, not so fast. Let me give you an example.

I remember treating  a family that included a son and a daughter. I don’t recall the precise ages of the children, but the boy was probably between 10 and 12, his sister much younger. I’d been seeing the family for some time when the parents came to their appointment in a state of more than usual alarm. The father first wanted to talk with me alone. He said that his son had threatened to “rape his sister.” I asked for the details, including whether the father had questioned his son as to his understanding of the word “rape.” “Yeah, I asked him whether he understood what that meant,” the father told me, “and he said that he did.” I then spoke with the son alone. This gentle but troubled and ashamed boy recounted the incident. Then I asked him to tell me, in his own words, what rape meant. And what came out was some version of “beating-up” his sister because she had been teasing him. Where had he heard the word “rape?” “On TV.”

Not that wanting to beat-up his little sister was a thing to be encouraged, but still, it wasn’t rape that he wanted to do, and everyone was pretty relieved once I explained the details to the parents. The point of this is that it isn’t as easy as we think to achieve “understanding” of what we are saying; indeed, if you think it is easy, you are probably creating a certain number of misunderstandings.

Consider how many serious attempts at communication are done in the form of email. Too many people routinely hit the “send” button before they have carefully reflected on how their message will be understood, and how they will feel about having sent that message in an hour or a day or a week.

What is the best way to be understood on any subject, and especially on a subject of importance? Be in the same room as the person with whom you would like to communicate, having first gathered your thoughts; and with the time to explain them and the opportunity to see if the other person can accurately paraphrase what you’ve said back to you. In this situation you will have several sources of information that can be helpful in making yourself understood, and are also available to inform you if your message has been received in the way that you were hoping. You will have words, of course, but also body-language, facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, inflections, the volume (loudness) of your speech, the speed with which you utter the words–all of these things, which you can vary as needed.

If you choose not to use face-to-face communication or simply can’t, due to circumstances of time or distance, perhaps a phone call will do. But understand that what you and your partner in conversation might be able to see has now been lost to you. Without the eye contact, body-language, and facial expressions to help you interpret the words you are hearing, the chance of misunderstanding grows.

Worst of all is the written word. True, if you have time and are a thoughtful person who is good with language, you might have added time to craft your written message that isn’t available when simply speaking in conversation. But, once the back-and-forth of an instant-message or text-message communication occurs, one usually loses the time for careful consideration that one had in the days of letter-writing. And you have lost not only the possible message-clarifying assistance of what you can see of the other person’s expressions and posture, but also all the things that a telephone still conveys in sound: inflection, emphasis, strain or ease, intensity, urgency, and so forth. Now your chance of being misunderstood has increased even more.

A very clever old book, How to Make Yourself Miserable by Dan Greenburg with Marcia Jacobs, puts it very well in Exercise #4 from a section called “Seventeen Masochistic Exercises for the Beginner:” “Write a letter to somebody, mail it, then figure out which part could be most easily misunderstood.” Greenberg wrote the book well before the days of IMs and text-messages, so one can only imagine what an update might look like given the destructive possibilities inherent in those speedy missives.

Sometimes the oldest advice is best: when you want to talk about something important or emotionally charged, take a deep breath and wait. Write if you need to (just to get your feelings out–don’t send it), talk to friends or a counselor, but take time before you address the issue to the person himself. And, when you do, if at all possible, do it face-to-face with lots of time to sort out the details. Beware of the IM and the text-message.

And if you are old enough, remember back to the Cold War days when the initials often heard in daily conversation were not IM, but ICBM–meaning Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile.

An IM can be a little bit like that, but might just blow up in your face.