Love is Never Enough, pt. II: Mind Reading and Relationships
There’s a great scene in Arthur Nersesian’s (a former teacher) short novel, Dogrun. The protagonist, Mary Bellanova, comes home to her East Village apartment, begins cooking dinner, and fights with her boyfriend, Primo, because he won’t answer her. His silence is interpreted as everything that’s wrong with the relationship – there’s this whole build-up as Mary busies herself with dinner and reading motivations for her lover’s silence until Mary realized that Primo’s silence in front of the TV set was more than just one of his bad moods: Primo was actually dead! It’s a funny scene (and great read, btw), but it highlights how we have this tendency to create and invent motivations where there are none. I believe this tendency to read into people grows the longer we are with them.
Perhaps the following sounds more familiar:
You rush home excited over some good news at work, you were offered a significant raise or promotion for example, and you’re eager to discuss the good news with your partner. You’re excited, happy and burst through the door and start telling your partner the unexpected career success, but he seems distant and removed – uninvolved, even. You think, He really doesn’t care about me. He’s only interested in himself. His disposition evaporates your excitement and instead of a celebration, you go into another room and pour yourself a glass of champagne.
Meanwhile, your partner – who was feeling dejected that day because he suffered a significant setback to his own career that day – sits and has the thought, she really doesn’t care about me. She’s self-absorbed and interested in her own career.
Welcome to Gladiator School, folks! LOL!
The above incident is a common pattern with people experiencing relationships problems. When high expectations are dashed, those in committed relationships are prone to jump to conclusions about their partner’s state of mind as well as the state of the relationship. Relying on what I call mind reading, the disappointed partner jumps to conclusions about the cause of the trouble: She’s acting this way because she’s being a bitch or He’s being this way because he’s filled with envy.
These conclusions, which often have no basis in reality, doom the relationship for certain failure because the offended individual may attack or withdraw from the partner. And the partner, who may feel unfairly punished, usually retaliates, creating a cycle of attack and withdrawal that can jump off into other areas of the relationship.
Interpreting a loved one’s motives in this way is dangerous simply because we can never read other people’s minds. Towards the end of my marriage, this mind reading became so bad that I couldn’t stand to discuss anything with my ex. I came to abhor talking about anything with her because it seemed to me that she expected me to read her mind. I can’t. I’m an insightful man, intelligent even, but I refuse – I am unable – to read anyone’s mind! LOL.
For example, in the second example above, one partner was unaware that the other had suffered a significant setback in his career and was anxious about discussing it. His partner had no way of knowing this because in leaving the room hurt, she had no way of finding this out. She assumed that he was too involved in himself to notice her. That’s a huge assumption to make.
But her withdrawal had many meanings for her partner. She’s running out on me for no good reason and Once again this proves she doesn’t care about how I feel. These explanations added to his sense of hurt and isolation. He, on the other hand, contributed to the disconnection through his own occupation with his own problems. Furthermore, in the past, when his partner became excited about a new idea or experience, he would attempt to analyze it rather than attune himself emotionally with her.
This kind of mind reading and miscommunication in relationships is much more common than we like to admit. Rather than seeing there’s a misunderstanding, partners attribute the problem to a partner’s character: he is mean or she’s a selfish bitch. Of course, in Primo’s case above, he didn’t have the luxury of thinking anything, which may be the ultimate relationship come back! LOL!
Although many people talk about the expression of anger in intimate relationships, and how to deal with it, there’s little focus on misconceptions and miscommunications that are often the cause for the anger and conflict. How one individual perceives and interprets what the other does is often far more important in determining relationship satisfaction than the actions themselves.
In order to avoid such relationship misconceptions, it helps to understand how the mind functions – and malfunctions – when we are frustrated or disappointed. The way our mind is structured predisposes us to misinterpret or exaggerate the meaning of other people’s behavior, to jump to negative conclusions, and to project a negative image on these people. We then act on these misinterpretations, in essence, attacking the very projection we created in the first place.
It hardly ever occurs to us at that moment that negative judgment could be wrong, and we are attacking a distorted image (sometimes these images are ourselves, in fact).
Next week: the tools for avoiding these traps.