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Relationships • Mature Love

Why You Can’t Read Your Partner’s Mind

Of course, most of us don’t officially have the slightest belief in mind reading. We scoff at the absurd idea that we might telepathically know what number between one and a million a stranger is thinking of, or that we could place our hands on someone else’s skull and thereby intuit the precise details of what they dreamt of last night. But in relationships, whatever our professed scepticism, we very frequently proceed as if mind reading were not only possible but a standard requirement and possibility in love, something of whose absence we would have every right to complain with bitterness and surprise.

In a great many ways, we simply assume that our partner must automatically be able to know the movements and preoccupations of our minds. Our expectations shows up in one of the standard ways in which we speak of the perfection of a lover in the initial days of rapture: they seem to know what we are thinking, without us needing to speak…

But our superstitious commitment to mind-reading soon evolves into something darker as relationships proceed. For example when: 

— We get huffy that our partner didn’t realise that our off-colour comment was only a joke.

— We can’t imagine they could even think we’d like the bizarre birthday present they bought us.

— We’re offended that they like a book we’ve already decided is silly.

— We’re annoyed that they didn’t know we wouldn’t want to go to the mountains this summer.

— They can’t understood the mood we are in when we get back from having lunch with our mother.

We get worked up because we can’t conceive that certain ideas and feelings that are so vivid in our minds should not immediately be obvious to someone who professes to care for us. We quickly fall into believing that the partner’s incomprehension can only be explained in one way: it must come down to wilfulness or nastiness. And therefore, it seems only fair that we respond with one of our standard forms of punishment due to all those who should have known better: a sulk — that paradoxical pattern of behaviour in which we refuse, for several hours or even a day or two, to reveal what is wrong to our confused partner because they should just know

The origins of our reckless hopes are, in a sense, extremely touching. When we were little a parent really did, at key moments, seem to know what we were thinking without us needing to speak. As if by magic, they guessed that we might want some milk. With a medium’s genius, they determined that we needed a bath or a nap or that a blanket was a bit scratchy for our cheek. And from this, an equation formed in our minds: whenever I am properly loved, I do not need to explain

But however great our parents were at reading our minds, they had a huge advantage over our partners: we were — back then — really very simple. Our requirements were usefully few: we needed only to be fed, bathed, slept, taken to the potty and entertained with a picture book or bit of string. But we had no advanced views on politics, we had no complicated opinions on interior design, our psyches didn’t register feint tremors of sarcasm or hypocrisy, we couldn’t be thrown off course by the pronunciation of a word.

How much more complicated we have grown since then. We are now adults who can feel very strongly that a table must be placed symmetrically in a room twenty centimetres from the door to the kitchen; or we like it very much when or partner rolls up their sleeves but we hate them wearing a short-sleeved shirt, especially the green one; we like being teased (but only sometimes and never about our age); we are very critical of our mother but can’t allow anyone to mention her habit of being late; we come across as confident but think of ourselves as shy; we like art but have an aversion to museums; we love stone fruits but hate peaches; we talk a lot about politics but can’t stand reading newspapers. Our partner’s inability to know all this — fast and decisively — necessarily feels like an intimate insult and the complex task of explaining our thoughts and attitudes like an unreasonable imposition. 

But once we accept that there is no such thing as mind reading, a central part of our relationship  becomes the slow, careful process of piecing together — in one another’s company — what matters to us and why, with all the surprise and moments of genuine revelation this entails. We accept that there will be an immense amount we need to teach each other about who we are pretty much every day — while trusting that this is not an attack on the idea of love. 

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