In my years of working with couples in therapy, I’ve noticed a dangerous myth that almost everyone believes about relationships, and it’s no wonder because we learn this belief from a very young age. We see it in romcoms and novels, we see it on TV, but it’s not the way real relationships with real people work.
You probably believe this myth too, and it might be causing issues in your relationship and fostering resentment and anger without you even knowing it! The problem isn’t your partner, and it’s not even YOU per se. The problem is a false belief that you can actually unlearn.
So let’s talk about that, shall we?
Kayla and Benjamin: A Common Relationship Pattern
Kayla and Benjamin met when the two of them were in their twenties. They were working at a summer program for troubled youth and they had noticed each other in the beginning. But one night there was a Friday evening program and as they were leaving the program, they realized that both of them had the night off together. They walked slowly down to the camps lakeshore, sat at the end of the dock, and started talking. They talked until dawn. They talked about their pasts and what they liked, what they wanted, and they talked about their futures. They talked about the dreams that they had. They filled up the night from when they started talking until dawn the next morning. When they were telling me this story, they said not only was this the first time that they had told anybody the story of how they met and how their relationship began, but that was the most intimate and connected conversation that they have ever had. They had never had a conversation like that since that night. They told me that by the end of that night, they each knew that the other was the one and within weeks, they got married. They had a very close and connected relationship for many years. The power of that night, the power of seeing the warmth in each other’s eyes just carried them year after year.
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Hi there I'm Dr Sarah Rattray
For over 30 years I've helped couples get closer and more connected by strengthening your communication. I'm known for my wise, grounded, caring energy, and for providing clear, practical steps you can take right away to improve the way you talk with each other.
The Myth Takes Hold
But after a while, cracks started developing in their relationship. That foundation of this one enormous conversation and never talking again did not work for them very well. Benjamin was becoming more and more angry and irritable with a simmering, slow boil of anger because Kayla was doing things in a way he did not like. He wanted her to do things in a different way, but he never told her that. Kayla was feeling more and more hurt and disappointed because he never seemed to notice her. He never seemed to see her efforts. He never noticed all the hard work that she was doing for the family. She felt criticized. What brought them to my office was that one night, Benjamin just had an explosive blowout where he yelled at her for hours about everything that she had been doing wrong for the course of several years. And she had had no idea about any of it. Kayla was obviously shattered. She was hurt and scared. She didn’t know what this meant for her or for their relationship. I didn’t know that they hadn‘t really talked in years, so I asked them what happened when Benjamin would tell Kayla what he wanted, and I asked Kayla what would happen when she would tell Benjamin what she wanted. And they both said that they had never done that. Benjamin, in particular, seemed kind of surprised or offended that I would think that he would have to tell her. He told me that of course, he didn’t tell her. She should know.
The Danger of the Mind-Reading Myth
That is a super common myth that so many people believe; the wish or belief that your partner should know without being told. That they should magically know what you are thinking, what you are feeling, what you want, and what you need.
This myth is incredibly dangerous for a successful, long-lasting relationship because that kind of mind-reading is just not possible.
You are two separate people who don’t share the same experiences. You truly cannot know, even though you’re really close to somebody. You can make really good guesses. And though sometimes it might seem like your partner’s reading your mind, they’re not reading your mind. They’re making educated guesses, but they’re very often wrong also. They very often don’t even know that there’s something you want them to be aware of.
So between the two of you, if one of you has something going on, the other person might not have any idea. So it does make sense that this is your wish. It makes sense that this is your belief that if your partner is really right for you and if your partner really cares about you, it makes sense that you would think to yourself that they should know what’s going on inside you.
One of the reasons that we think that is the training that we had when we were children. We were trained as babies that our caretakers knew what we needed. We didn’t have to say anything. They figured it out. Of course, we needed that for survival. We’re trained to think that that’s how it’s supposed to be. We might wait our whole lives to meet with that person who gets us at such a deep level that they’ll be able to read our minds.
Overcoming the Myth
One of the things that we had to do right in the beginning when I was working with Kayla and Benjamin, was to take apart that myth that our partners should be able to read our mind. It was hard for both of them because they had built a relationship for over 20 years on the structure of that first night and that first conversation when they felt so connected, they thought it would just be that way forever. That they never had to say anything. They were scared that if they had to tell the other person what they were thinking or feeling or wanting or needing, that it actually meant that they weren’t right for each other anymore. This is a fear a lot of us have, and that is so far from the truth.
The second thing that we had to do was start working on skills for how they could safely and successfully talk with each other about what is going on inside for them.
You can learn these skills too! To talk to your partner about what you want, need, think, and feel, the first step is to introduce the conversation. I think when you know that you have a way to introduce it, it feels a little bit easier to get into the talk itself.
I suggest an introduction that goes something like this:
If you want to talk about something, tell your partner “Hey honey, there’s something that I’ve been thinking/feeling/wanting and I realized that I was thinking that you knew all along, but actually I haven’t ever told you. So what I would really love is if we could find some time to sit down together, the two of us, where I can tell you what I’ve been feeling so that you can know. When is a good time for the two of us to talk when we won’t be interrupted and when we have pretty good energy?”
Then you could make a suggestion for a time and place, or just see what they say. You could suggest “How about Saturday morning when the kids are playing with their friends? Would that be a good time?” A gentle introduction can open a lot of doors. Let your partner know that there’s something that you’re thinking or feeling. Let them know that you assumed that they knew and then let them know you realize they didn’t.
Take responsibility for bringing this up and ask for a time where you can give it your full attention because you don’t want your partner to be distracted. You don’t want them to have feel time pressure or be too tired to pay attention to you.
How Do You Actually Talk About What You Want?
When the two of you sit down to have this conversation about what has been on your mind, be sure that you take responsibility for not having said it yet. You were imagining that your partner knew what you were thinking. Don’t blame your partner. Don’t make it sound like they should have known, but since they didn’t know, now you have to spell it out. That’s not the case. Really take it on yourself to say, “For some reason I was thinking that you’d be able to know this. And then I realized, how could you know because I never did tell you.”
Listen and Thank Them
When you’re listening to your partner, when your partner has told you what it is that they wanted you to know, really listen carefully and then thank them.
Thank your partner for telling you, for opening up and sharing this. Because remember, we want this to be a safe conversation where it doesn’t feel like it was a bad idea after all to share what we were thinking or feeling. Let them know that you would rather hear directly what they’re thinking or feeling or what they want or need rather than having to guess. Let them know and invite them to do that again.
Remember, your partner can’t read your mind. They might be able to make a good guess, but you’re two different people with two different brains and two different life experiences. So if something is on your mind or something is in your heart, please speak up and tell your partner what it is. I know you’re here because you’re motivated to have a great relationship. I applaud you for taking steps to make your relationship thrive, and it doesn’t stop there.
Interested in more tips on mastering your relationship?
Check out my webinar, Connection and Closeness, this September 25th-28th.