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  • Writer's pictureCrystin Rice

The Mind-Reading Trap

Updated: Sep 9


When relationship stress starts to creep in, it's not uncommon for us to find ourselves saying,

"My partner should just know how to help around the house. All they have to do is look around and see what needs doing."

or

"My spouse should just know that I need time to myself when I get home from work. The last thing I need is to hear about how awful their day was."


These thoughts are rooted in the desire for our partner to be that one special person who knows us best. We often have a deep desire to feel really understood by them - for them to see what our life is like and know both our struggles and our pain. We feel cared for when they understand what stresses us and try to help soothe us. The opposite can happen, too. If they seem oblivious to what we are struggling with, we can start to believe they don't care about us.


This is an attachment principle that starts early in life. As infants, our caregivers needed to know how to soothe us. If they could correctly determine when we were hungry, tired, or hurt and meet that need, we felt secure. This allowed us to develop a strong emotional bond with them.


As adults, our needs are more complex and we also enter into relationships where we have to balance giving and receiving. The emotional bond in adult partnership is more challenging and requires more complex, mature ways of being cared for. It is important for couples to understand their partner's world...but not by mind-reading.



Why is mind-reading harmful?


If we expect out partners to read our minds, we are less likely to openly share our needs, discuss expectations, or let our partner into our emotional world. In other words, we set them up for failure. Over time, our unexpressed needs go unmet, leading to increasing frustration and disappointment. Eventually we end up resenting our partner for all the things we wanted them to do but never asked for.


Further, when people engage in mind-reading, they will color the thoughts with their own insecurities. The result is they end up trying to defend themselves based on their insecurities, and this can leave you resentful that they were defensive instead of helping meet your need.


Usually when we find ourselves fighting about things that seem frivolous, it's because we are asking for deeper connection without actually saying it out loud. The problem is that we usually ask in a way that backfires and makes connection more difficult.


Consider this scenario: A husband notices that his wife wasn’t very talkative during dinner.


Unhelpful approach:

He thinks: I bet she is angry with me. Well, two can play that game! I'm not going to try harder in this relationship than she is.


Here the husband is hoping for more connection by engaging in conversation. He would feel more cared about if they were able to bring each other up to date on their day. He uses mind-reading to come up with a reason for why his wife isn't engaging in conversation and then gets angry and defensive, moving away from connection instead.


Helpful approach:

If, instead, the husband could trust that she would let him know if she was angry, then he knows he can automatically assume it is not his fault until she tells him otherwise. This increases trust between them. He knows that she doesn't expect him to mind-read (and risk coming up with the wrong scenario) and can instead approach her from a place of curiosity about what's going on for her instead of defensiveness over assuming she's angry with him.


He says, "I notice you aren't very talkative. Is there something I could do that would be helpful for you right now?"


She might respond that she's distracted by conflict with some of her friends and it's been very upsetting to her. She didn't want to end up burdening him, but now that he has asked, she might feel more comfortable sharing...and both would feel more connected.



Here's another common situation: A woman gets home from work and notices that her partner hasn’t emptied the dishwasher again.


Unhelpful approach: She thinks: He clearly doesn’t care about me and is perfectly happy being lazy while I do all of the work.

This person is hoping to feel seen and supported by her partner. She engages in mind-reading and assumes that because he didn't empty the dishwasher, he doesn't care about her internal distress. Then she makes a character judgment that he is "lazy" and may become critical of him.


He ends up feeling like he can never make her happy and is likely to withdraw so that he doesn't keep feeling like he is failing. As he withdraws, she thinks she can't rely on him at all and becomes resentful. Instead of expressing herself in a way that would solicit his support, she has allowed resentment to take root in the relationship.


Helpful approach: If she was able to express what was bothering her in an honest and non-blaming way (knowing that her partner would not feel expected to read between the lines but could trust that she would say exactly what she needed), then she would be much more likely to feel more understood and even get the help she was seeking.


That might look like saying, "I'm feeling really worn out. It's been a tough day, and I need to take some time to de-stress. I would be very grateful if you help me not feel so overwhelmed by unloading the dishwasher before bed."


She is not calling her partner lazy (which would result in him just trying to defend himself) and also makes it clear how he can be successful in easing what she is going through.


Mind-reading leads to less trust and more resentment.

Why is it my responsibility to tell my partner what to do? If they really love me, shouldn't they just know?


If you are stuck in painful patterns like the ones above, do you really want to train your partner to have to read your mind (and risk them getting it wrong)? Or would you rather be able to share what you need in an open and non-aggressive way -- and trust that if your partner has a need, they will do the same for you?


Which approach increases trust and feelings of safety?


Would it feel better to have the expectation that your partner "just know" and that you are also required to "know" what's happening inside them...or would it feel better to trust each other enough to share your inner world without risking the conflict that comes when they assume more than you actually said?


Which approach makes it most likely that your partner will know you well and result in a deeper, more intimate relationship?


 

If you find that you and your partner tend to argue over the same things, a therapist can help you change the conversation. It can be hard when we are too close to the argument to see what's really at stake. An outside perspective could help partners see the pattern and find a more effective way to ask each other for what you need.



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