Mind-Reading, Guessing Games, and Communication Breakdowns in Relationships

“If you don’t already know, I’m not going to tell you.”  In some relationships, this is a classic response to the question, “Is something wrong?”  One person unwittingly offends the other.  Instead of speaking up, the offended person withdraws, often into the silent treatment, expects the offender to read his or her mind, and becomes angry if asked to actually say what the problem is.  Either the offended party doles out more silent treatment, or snaps at their partner for not already knowing what the problem is.

This behavior reminds me of trying to talk to a friend’s child who hadn’t quite learned how to talk yet.  This boy knew exactly what he was saying, and expected me to understand it in the way he was saying it.  I am sure his parents have figured out his particular code of grunts and gestures, but I certainly have not.  As I tried to understand what he wanted from me, he became more and more frustrated that I wasn’t understanding him, and he started to gesture and grunt more wildly and angrily. Unfortunately for him, there was no way for me to decode his meaning, and no interpreters were nearby.  Also, there was no way for him to find a way to make his meaning clear to me, so he did not get what he wanted, whatever that may have been.

Just like this child, the offended partner feels that they have been perfectly clear about what has offended them, and feels the same frustration as the child does, in not being understood.  Maybe previous partners knew how to decode this secret language, just as the child’s parents have learned to do.  Maybe the silent treatment worked on others, evoking a certain desired response.  Whatever the reason, this person needs to learn how to use their words to explain just what the problem is, no matter how frustrating or vulnerable this feels.

Both partners can change this dynamic.  If you are more likely to say, “If you don’t know, I am not going to tell you,” then you can learn to pause and explain what has hurt you.  If you are more likely to be the recipient of this demand for mind-reading, you do not need to scramble to do the mind-reading.  You can say something along the lines of, “I know that you feel that I should understand what you are going through, and I would like to, but unless you tell me, I can’t do anything to make it right.”  These ingrained habits are hard to change, but it is worth the time and trouble.  After all, as a couple you are in a partnership with each other rather than in a war against each other.

Other interesting articles:

Being Truthful in Relationships Sometimes Means Saying Things People Don’t Want to Hear

The Things We Do To Avoid Asking Questions

Asking Your Partner for What You Want- The Valentine’s Day Version

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