More than at any point in its history, we demand a lot from the institution of marriage. As psychotherapist Esther Perel has pointed out, we ask our partner to “give us what an entire village used to provide: belonging…identity…continuity…transcendence…mystery and awe all in one.” With those demands, it’s a wonder that any marriage survives.
As if this were not enough, we also want our partners to have the gift of mind-reading. We say to them ‘you should have known what I needed without me having to tell you.’ Or, ‘how could you not have known that would upset me?’ These statements can result in our partner staring at us dumb-founded while we battle our own feelings of hurt and irritation.
And although women are more often accused of expecting their partners to read their minds, in my practice I frequently see men make similar demands on their girlfriends or wives. Further, the disappointment can be compounded, due to the cultural belief that women should be ‘feelings experts,’ and should intuit what their men need.
My simple solution to the mind reading problem is this: don’t expect your partner to know what you need without you having to tell them. Just…don’t. You will save yourself a great deal of heartache and disappointment and confused looks from your partner by communicating honestly. I know, however, that reality is a bit more complicated. So below I discuss four key guidelines to help address the problem of mind reading.
1) Directly tell your partner what you need from them. Whether it’s emotional support, sex and affection, help solving a problem, or whatever else—let your partner know what you’re looking for. Admittedly, this can be tough. We may feel uncomfortable with the vulnerability that comes with openly admitting our needs. We may hope that our partner will read our minds so that we don’t have to expose ourselves. However, expressing your needs to your partner provides an opportunity to deepen your relationship. It is through this vulnerability that we create a secure connection to our partners and build genuine intimacy. Don’t rob yourself of the chance to strengthen your bond.
Note: hinting does not count as saying what you need. What hinting really says is that you’re not willing to be vulnerable to this person—so you may want to ask yourself why you are struggling with being open in your relationship.
2) Telling your partner what you need is not cheating because marriage is not charades. Sometimes I have clients say that if they have to tell their partner what they need from them, then this somehow makes their partner’s responses less authentic or meaningful. However, this sentiment discounts the fact that all mature love is a choice. We choose to do things for our partner as an expression of our love and commitment. We are free not to do these things, even when asked. So if a partner is willing to try to meet our needs, we are better served by acknowledging their efforts, as opposed to becoming stuck on the fact that they did so as a result of a request from us.
3) But I already told them what I needed. If you feel that you have been directly honest (not hinted!) about what you need, and you continue to find yourself disappointed, it’s time to have a conversation with your partner. Ask them if they understand what you’re looking for, and also share why it matters to you. If they’re having difficulty doing what you’ve asked, then see if you can reach a compromise or figure out how you can help them better support you.
4) Sometimes the answer is no. If, after all this, your partner remains unwilling or unable to meet your need, then you have to determine what it’s worth to get this particular desire met within the context of your relationship—is it vital that you receive this from your partner? Is it a need that can be fulfilled by a friend or someone else close to you? Further, is it a true need or something you can live without? Even in the best of relationships, we will not have all our needs met by our partners, so it is up to each person to decide what they can and cannot live without.
The idea that our partners will always know what we need, without prompting, is a fantasy. It is a standard that no one can meet. But when we openly share our needs with our partners, we not only reduce disappointment and confusion, but also set the stage for a deeper connection. Let go of the fiction of mind-reading and embrace the vulnerability that fuels real intimacy and secure love.
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