By Robert Gordon
“How can he not know how horribly inappropriate it was to give me a blender for my birthday?” “Does she not get that I can’t just spill my guts on demand? Why is she all up in my face with “What’s wrong? Talk to me!” “Do I have to write him a (expletive deleted) manual to get any sexual satisfaction?” “How can she keep nagging me about a night out with the guys when she knowsit’s the only way I get to blow off steam?”
Hmm. The opposite of “having to ask” would be mind reading, yes? That’s unfortunate, because we can’t. Why then are we so sure we know what our partner really means with “that tone?” Why are we convinced that if our partner really loved us, if they were the right partner, we wouldn’t need to ask for the obvious?
In spite of the notoriously destructive effects of believing in marital mind reading, the belief is strangely intractable. From whence comes this knotty notion of nuptial clairvoyance? Ever heard of intermittent reinforcement? It’s what keeps people going back to the slot machine again and again, even though with every pull of the handle the chance of a jackpot is random, miniscule, and independent of all past pulls. In other words, it’s no more likely to work this time than it ever was. But if the marital mind reading myth seemed to deliver results even once or twice in the past, we cling to it like a gambler does to a slot machine handle.
Is it possible we formed this expectation during the courtship phase of love, when we seemed able to anticipate one another’s every wish? Or were we so high on the neurochemical cocktail of new romance that we were fulfilled by the state of love itself? Maybe it’s a little of both, but neither of them constitutes mind reading. Problem is, after the blissful merging that is characteristic of the romantic phase of love, we differentiate again. That’s good. We’re supposed to. Failure to do so is a problem in itself, which sometimes shows up as love addiction (“Bring back that lovin’ feeling”) or codependence (“I’ll do anything to hang onto this lovin’ feeling”).
What to do?
I offer these principles and steps.
- Vive la difference! There is a simple truth, the ignorance of which sends many a couple into the counseling office: In every relationship there exist two entirely different realities; yours and your partner’s. Embrace this, and you free yourself from a ton of unnecessary suffering. You may also find your way back into the passion that characterized your relationship at the beginning, when your complimentary differences were a source of sexual tension, curiousity, and attraction. Merging is a great place to visit but you don’t want to live there.
- Recognize that the conflict that arises from being in an intimate relationship with someone who perceives things very differently than you is growth trying to happen. The point is not to vanquish but to understand. People who make the stretch to understand each other seem to have an easier time reaching mutually satisfying compromises, or even recognizing that the issue that ignited the conflict was just a red herring from the get-go.
- Accept, deeply and finally, that mind-reading in your relationship is a myth. Forgetaboutit. Transcend. Move on.
- Communicate. OK, I know what you’re thinking. (Wait, no I don’t. I just said that was impossible.) I suspect you’re thinking that “better communication” is on the cover of every magazine at the check-out counter from Cosmopolitan to Prevention and it doesn’t do any good. Maybe you’re right. Admonishments to “communicate better” with no clear and attainable method are ineffective, almost cruel. But here’s hope: The key is to ask in a way that your partner can hear; a way that gets results without making one of you “wrong.” If you can’t do it on your own, don’t be afraid to go for help.