Through my work with couples, it’s become apparent that many people need to give up the myth that their partner can read their mind and determine exactly what their needs are without them having to say a word.
Many of us have a belief system that if our partner really loved us, they’d know precisely what we need to feel loved and cared about, and they would always respond accordingly.
I get a lot of resistance when I suggest that one partner throw out this idea. Over time this belief becomes so ingrained that we really believe this is what love is all about: a perfect partner who can respond flawlessly to every want and need without us ever having to provide any direction.
Why do we believe this?
One prominent couples’ therapist, Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., theorizes that this myth exists because when we were babies our parents had to determine our needs without our being able to verbally communicate our needs. Hendrix says that our brains remember this and continue to believe to this day that when someone loves us, they will “just know” how to take care of us.
Another well-regarded couples’ therapist, Steven Stosny, Ph.D., suggests that this myth exists because in the beginning, when we were first falling in love, it was extremely easy for our partner to please us. Everything they did seemed so wonderful and perfect, and we grew to believe that they just knew how to make us happy. However, as we become more familiar with them, and the giddy “in love” feelings wear off, suddenly we feel disappointed, thinking that our partner changed and stopped doing such loving things. This leads to us feeling cheated and resentful.
The resistance to change
Whatever the reason, it seems clear that the belief that our partners should be able to intuit our needs and wants exists, and that it is difficult to get couples to shift away from this idea. There may be two reasons for this.
1) We’d like to believe that love should be easy
We get nervous when it takes effort to maintain a great relationship. We begin to think we are with the wrong person because the relationship seems like “too much work.”
2) It’s easier to expect our partner to “just know” what we need
Then we don’t have to do any work! This belief lets us off the hook when it comes to a) figuring out what it is we want, need, and expect in our relationships, and b) communicating this to our partner.
Often, when I ask an individual what they need to feel loved and cared about, they look at me blankly.
- “If you don’t know, then how can you expect your partner to know?” I ask them.
- “Well, he/she knew in the beginning,” they often respond (supporting Stosny’s point)
Of course, there is most likely some truth in the idea that our partners really do go out of their way more for us in the beginning and become less motivated over time to engage in behaviors that lead us to feel loved and cared about.
However, whether we were easier to please in the beginning and everything our partner did just “seemed” perfect to us, or whether they really were behaving “perfectly,” and now they aren’t, this state obviously doesn’t last throughout the course of the relationship. At some point, one partner gets disappointed in the other and feels betrayed.
The problem, besides holding the belief that our partner should read our mind, is what we do with our disappointment. We may get angry and lash out, attacking our partner, “You never put in the effort anymore” or we may get quiet, shut down, and say “Everything’s fine,” even though our behavior shows our partner that everything is not fine.
This is when it would be great if our partner really could read our mind and know that we don’t mean to be critical or to shut down, but we just don’t know how to come out and say in a non-blaming way:
“I feel disconnected from you” or “I miss how you used to _________________ (scratch my back, take me to dinner, bring me flowers, call me just to say hi, etc)
We all feel loved and cared about a little differently: What you need may be the complete opposite of what your partner needs. Your partner may need something that is the opposite of what your last partner needed.
It’s your job to figure out what you want, need, and expect in your relationship and to let your partner know what those things are. And it’s also your job to be open to hearing from your partner what his/her needs are as well.
Assessing our past
If we think back to Hendrix’s idea that our brains believe those who love us will know what we need due to how we were taken care of as a baby, it’s helpful to realize that our parents only had a few, somewhat generic choices when it came to figuring out what we needed, whether it was to be changed, or that we needed a nap, or that we wanted attention, or that we are sick and needed to go to the doctor.
As you grew up, your needs and wants became more varied and much more personal. Your preferences are most likely different from your siblings, and ideally your parents got to know you and were able to respond to your needs in a more individualized way.
But this wasn’t just your parents’ job anymore—it was also up to you to let your parents know what your ever-changing needs were so that they could respond more effectively. Or maybe you grew up with parents who were unconcerned with your needs and did little to meet them. This may be why it feels better to leave it up to your partner to figure out what you need—because you don’t really believe deep down that anyone wants to meet them. So, why would you put them out there and risk being rejected?
It’s far easier to put the responsibility for your own needs on your partner and then blame him/her when they aren’t met.
But it’s just not effective.
Becoming an active participant
Fortunately, and unfortunately, falling in love involves risk. The risk involved may yield high rewards, or the risk may mean we lose it all. Being in love is risky because we can’t guarantee that our partner will always love us or that we won’t somehow be hurt or betrayed. Couples often love their partner in the way they themselves would feel loved and are surprised when their partner doesn’t necessarily feel loved from their actions.
We will all do better in our relationships when:
- We understand that we chose to take the gamble to love our partner
- We can take more responsibility for how the relationship is going—and not passively wait for our partner to “just know”
Repairing and moving forward
Chapman identifies that some people feel more loved through spending quality time with their partner, while others primarily feel loved through physical touch, while still others prefer lots of verbal affirmation. His books help people figure out their style and guides them in being able to let their partner know what sort of things will improve their loving behaviors without them having to rely on the myth of mind reading.