Blog Short #60: Is mind-reading good for relationships?

Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday, I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you. My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!


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Do you think your partner should be able to read your mind? After all, doesn’t he know you well enough to know what you’re thinking and feeling? Shouldn’t he know what you need?

Hmmm, this one’s not so easy to answer. It’s complicated. It’s a yes -and a no.

Let’s start with what mind-reading is and isn’t. Then maybe we can get clearer on what we should realistically expect.

What is mind-reading?

In a literal sense, mind-reading is a type of telepathy, meaning you can actually read someone’s mind. But that’s not how we use it. We use it more loosely to mean we can read someone’s thoughts and feelings without having them explicitly verbalized to us. In truth, we don’t really read each other’s minds, but we know enough about someone to correctly guess at what they’re thinking or feeling.

And herein lies the problem for couples. We make the assumption that mind-reading equates with love, interest, and caring.

“If you really know me and love me, then you know what I need, think, and feel.”

That’s a tall order, don’t you think?

It is, yet we still expect it. The question is why, and the answer is something more primal.

We want to be known.

Because humans are wired for connection, we want to be known and understood. This need arises early in life, likely in the womb, and continues to unfold during those first few years of life.

In the early months after birth, the infant doesn’t recognize her separateness from her mother. She’s like a magician who has a wish for something and it automatically appears. Abracadabra!!! She wields her magic wand and all her needs are met. She and Mama are one – baby needs something and Mama supplies it.

As baby moves toward the second year, she begins to recognize her separateness from Mama. She slowly realizes Mama is the real magic, and she seeks to connect to her through interaction, attention, love and nurturing.

As adults, we still seek that connection. It’s a much more sophisticated version of that early need and is accompanied by a full toolbox of emotional expressions and cognitive capacities, but the need remains the same:

We want to be seen, known, connected, and loved.

And nowhere are those needs more intensified than in romantic relationships.

The Problem

Here’s the problem:

When you enter into a committed romantic relationship, both you and your partner bring everything with you that’s accumulated in your psyches since birth.

Holy overwhelm! That’s a lot to navigate! And it makes mind-reading quite dangerous and often inaccurate.

By the time you enter into that relationship, and you’re anticipating that special connection you yearn for, you’ve developed a truckload of personal beliefs, behaviors, biases, needs for control and power, sensitivities to rejections . . . should I go on? All of that pours into that relationship. Both your’s and your partner’s.

Whoa! That makes it seem impossible for mind-reading to ever be accurate, but that’s not entirely true. Research has shown that it does improve for couples who:

  • Are in long-term relationships.
  • Have increased intimacy over time.
  • And, who feel satisfied overall with their partner.

In a nutshell:

The more you know about each other through your experiences and conversations, and the closer you feel to each other, the more likely you are to be able to read what you each think and feel.

But wait . . .

Even in good relationships, mind-reading is very complex, and we unfortunately tend to expect it most when a relationship is under duress.

How often have you been in a conflict with your partner and thought something like,

“I shouldn’t have to tell you . . . you should know!”

To make it worse, sometimes you set your partner up to test him. You vaguely hint around at something, then lie in wait to see if he’ll get it.

“Do you really know me? Do you care? Let’s just see.

I’m being a little facetious here, but I know I’ve done things like this in my marriage and I’ll bet you have too. It’s normal.

Here’s a question to get a little insight into this whole thing:

Do you always know what you need, think, or feel?

I’m guessing your answer is no. So how much harder then is it for your partner to know?

Here’s a better practice.

Instead of waiting for your partner to read your mind, tell him what you need. The truth is, love is making it as easy as possible for your partner to know and understand you and vice versa. Try this:

  1. Communicate clearly and directly your thoughts, feelings, and needs.
  2. Reveal yourself. Don’t avoid, hold out, or manipulate. Be open and honest about who you are, what you want, and what you expect.
  3. Be attentive and show interest. When you feel that your partner is truly interested in you – your well-being, your feelings, your desires, and your needs – you feel loved and connected, and you build trust.

John Gottman, who’s done extensive research on marriage and romantic relationships, has found that,

“Being attentive to your partner is the most important factor in determining whether a relationship will grow and last.”

He says that healthy couples are constantly involved in making and accepting “bids.” Bids are subtle or unsubtle requests to connect. They can be verbal or nonverbal.

For example, if your husband is sitting in his favorite chair after dinner and gives a big sigh, he’s putting out a bid. If you respond to it, you would ask, “What’s the matter? That was a big sigh.”

Bids can be as simple as a pat on the shoulder or as complex as a request to talk over a problem. Bids are invitations to connect, and the more couples offer bids and respond to them, the closer they are and the greater chance they have of a lasting relationship. Also, the easier they’re able to read each other’s thoughts and feelings.

Two Last Things

1) Don’t engage in or expect mind-reading during a conflict.

Studies have shown that we exaggerate, misread, and tend to see our partner’s reactions and responses more negatively during a dispute. We’re also more defensive.

2) If you think you’re accurately reading your partner’s mind, then test it by asking.

Don’t assume. Assumptions probably cause more problems than anyone ever considers. Your partner will appreciate being asked because it shows you’re interested and you care, which is, after all, the whole point behind mind-reading.

That wraps it up for today!

If you’d like to know more about “bids,” and how to use them, I’ve provided a link for a short video you can see on YouTube that was created by the Gottman Institute. Enjoy!

Hope you have a great week!

All my best,

Barbara


FOOTNOTES

Dunn, J. (2000). Mind-reading, emotion understanding, and relationships. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 24(2), 142-144. https://doi.org/10.1080/016502500383241

Hinnekens, C., Sillars, A., Verhofstadt, L., & Ickes, W. (March 2020). Empathetic accuracy and cognitions during conflict: An in-depth analysis of understanding scores. Personal Relationships, 27(1) 102-131. DOI:10.1111/pere.12311

Thomas, G, & Fletcher, G. (2003). Mind-reading accuracy in intimate relationships: Assessing the roles of the relationship, the target, and the judge. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(6), 1079-1094. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.85.6.1079

Ury, L. (2019, February 11). Want to improve your relationship? Start paying more attention to bids. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/want-to-improve-your-relationship-start-paying-more-attention-to-bids/

Zafefka, H., & Bahul, K. (2021). Beliefs that contribute dissatisfaction in romantic relationships. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 29(2), 13-160. https://doi.org/10.1177/1066480720956638

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