When it comes to intimate relationships, many believe mind reading is a legitimate expectation.
Holding this view frees us from having to directly express our withheld needs and desires. This expectation can, as we usually find out the hard way, lead to (ahem) “difficult” situations.
The following re-created dialogue between Karen and her husband, Peter, offers an example of what it can sound like when one or both partners fail to fulfill the unspoken expectations of the other. After Karen arrived home from work, Peter greeted her and was met with cold silence.
Peter: Is anything wrong?
Karen: Why? Do you care?
Peter: What do you mean? Of course I care. Karen, what’s the matter?
Karen: You know I had tests done at the doctor’s today.
Peter: Yes, I know. How did it go?
Karen: 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 know that I was very worried about this test.
Peter: I did call and you weren’t available, so I left a message.
Karen: 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.)
Peter (becoming 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, throws his hands up, and walks away.)
If you’ve ever been on either side of a scenario like this, you’re not alone.
And you know how it feels — not particularly good for either partner. The accuser often feels abandoned and unloved, and the accused may feel shamed and often becomes defensive or angry. This is a prescription for conflict and possibly gridlock.
Unfortunately, these interactions occur all too frequently because of our tendency to make assumptions and hold unspoken expectations.
Many of these are based upon culturally sanctioned myths. “If you really loved me, I wouldn’t have to ask” is one of them.
Accusations like this are often made in an effort to avoid vulnerability or rejection. We often hear from people, “But I shouldn’t have to ask for something that should be naturally provided by someone who loves me.”
To this we say: 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 your partner has other reasons for not responding in the way you wanted in this situation, and it isn’t because he or she isn’t a genuinely loving person.
Examples of some of these reasons include:
- You each have different understandings of what constitutes “sufficient” effort to accommodate a perceived need.
- Your partner would not feel the way that you do if they were in your situation.
- Your partner gave you what they would want if they were in your situation.
- Your partner was preoccupied with something else in that moment.
- Your partner hasn’t stopped loving you, but they were just having a bad day and so weren’t available for you in the way that you hoped for.
Another explanation is that your partner may actually not have felt loving toward you at that particular moment.
Feelings of love are not constant, and they are sometimes interrupted by other emotions and concerns. If there are patterns of consistent negligence, disrespect, or callousness, there may be reason for concern and doubt regarding a partner’s degree of caring. Still, a failure to mind read does not constitute legitimate grounds for an accusation of being unloving.
In cases where there is concern regarding the quality of a partner’s feelings, there are other, more effective ways of dealing with the situation than by projecting accusations. Doing so only increases the likelihood that each partner will become defensive, which is like pouring gasoline on a fire.
Failing to express specifically what we want or need can be a defense to avoid being vulnerable.
It can feel safer to criticize our partner than to acknowledge certain desires we have, particularly ones we fear they may not fulfill or even respect. Expressing in very specific, rather than global, terms the nature of those desires helps minimize the likelihood that our partner will feel attacked.
Seeing beyond our hurt or frustration to identify our unmet needs can require focused effort, but naming these desires and then expressing them to our partner in a respectful, nonjudgmental way will create a very different outcome than the scenario that Karen and Peter experienced.
Some examples of unfulfilled desires include wanting the following:
- More recognition or acknowledgment
- More emotional, physical, or sexual intimacy
- More solitude
- More caring and attentive listening to our concerns and ideas
- More help with the housework and/or childcare
- More time together to address “unfinished business” and other issues
- More fun and play time together
These are just a few of the unexpressed needs and desires that can be neglected when we fear the consequence of bringing them up. Even couples who have been together for decades don’t possess the ability to read each other’s minds. It’s impossible to ever know another person that well. There is, fortunately, always room for surprises in relationships.
As the old saying goes, when we assume, we make an ass out of u and me. Arrogance is thinking that we know something to be true when it may not be.
The antidote to arrogance is humility, and that requires the courage to risk vulnerability and emotional honesty.
That may sound like a lot, and in fact, it is more than many people are up for. But for those who are, the payoffs far outweigh the risks. More often than not, the feared consequences of expressing our needs don’t occur, and we are relieved when things turn out differently than we had anticipated. Some surprises are quite delightful. But don’t take our word for it. Try it and see for yourself.
About the authors
Linda Bloom, LCSW, and Charlie Bloom, MSW are the authors of the book Happily Ever After…and 39 Other Myths about Love. They regularly teach at Esalen Institute and the Kripalu Center and have served as adjunct faculty at institutes of higher learning including UC Berkeley Extension and California Institute for Integral Studies. They live in Santa Cruz, CA.
To know more about Linda and Charlie, visit their website www.bloomwork.com.