One of the most common complaints of couples who come to me for counseling goes something like this: “My spouse should know what I want without being told. If he really loved me, he’d know what I need. I shouldn’t have to spell it out for him.”
Somehow we come into marriage wanting our spouse to be so attuned to us that they will be able to pick up on the tiniest of cues, know us better than we know ourselves, and intuitively discern exactly what we want and need from them at any given moment. We expect our spouse to read our mind.
This desire is normal. It’s one of our attachment longings, a longing to be known, to be seen at the deepest level. We want our spouse to “get” us.
This attachment need starts when we’re born. As a baby, we are utterly dependent on others to survive. We need a caregiver who is intimately attuned to us, who notices even small signs of distress, and who correctly guesses what we need. We need parents who read our mind.
But as adults, this desire for our partner to read our mind can be dangerous. If we let our understandable desire to be known become an expectation that we shouldn’t have to ask for what we need, then our inevitable frustration and disappointment will damage our marriage.
How can we process this longing to be known and instead have realistic expectations of our spouse? How can we verbalize what we want and need in a mature, non-demanding way? How can we let our attachment needs draw us closer to our partner instead of driving a wedge between us?
1) Notice the Warning Signs
Disappointment signals that we were hoping for and expecting something that we didn’t receive. If you frequently feel emotions such as disappointment, frustration or impatience toward your spouse, then that may be a sign that you were hoping your spouse would read your mind.
Allison (not her real name) would frequently “test” her husband’s love for her. She would think of what she wanted from him, such as, for example, that he would plan something special for her birthday, and then tell herself that if he really loved her, he would do it without being asked or reminded. She would deliberately choose not to mention her desires to him ahead of time, in order to test whether or not he really loved her. Sadly, he usually failed to do what she had secretly expected of him, and Allison struggled with feeling deeply disappointed and unloved.
2) Soothe Your Disappointment
When you notice that you’ve been secretly expecting your spouse to read your mind, you have three possible ways to handle your disappointment. First, you could indulge your disappointment. “That’s right, he doesn’t really love you. It’s not like you were expecting that much. Most husbands would have known what to do.” Indulging your disappointment can lead to berating your spouse, feeling bitter and resentful, and possibly giving up on the marriage.
Another way to handle disappointment is to shame it. Berate yourself for having expectations. “Grow up. Don’t be a baby. It’s unrealistic to expect that she’ll remember what you want, so just handle it yourself.” Telling yourself that you expect too much and trying not to have expectations of your spouse can lessen the immediate feelings of disappointment, but it can also lead to more distance in the marriage as you try not to need the other person or put yourself in a position where they could let you down.
What you want to do is soothe your disappointment. It works in the same way a caring parent soothes a disappointed child. First you notice the disappointed feeling. Then you understand it and empathize with it. “It makes sense that you’re disappointed. Part of you wishes your spouse would be so attuned to you that it’s almost like he’s reading your mind.” Then you let that disappointed part know that there’s hope. “You can keep on getting better at noticing your needs and communicating them to your spouse. You can work through this disappointment.”
3) Accept Your Needs
The more we struggle to see our own needs as valid, the more we expect our partner to validate our needs by reading our mind. Allison secretly expected her husband to plan a wonderful surprise celebration for her birthday, but felt deep down that maybe she didn’t really deserve anything special. She felt like actually asking her husband to make a big deal of her birthday would be selfish. She desperately wanted her husband to understand and accept her needs because it was so difficult for her to do that for herself.
This is true in my own marriage. I’m a person who often needs down time. If I don’t take responsibility to plan the down time that I need, if I keep pushing myself and telling myself I have to keep going, then when my husband makes a request of me, I might get frustrated. Doesn’t he see that I’m busy? Why isn’t he doing more for me, to lighten my load? I start expecting him to read my mind and give me what I haven’t asked him for out loud. When I accept my needs and take responsibility for them, then I take the initiative to plan some down time and I ask my husband for help when I get overwhelmed.
4) Put Yourself in your Partner’s Shoes
Practice the art of perspective-taking. What would the situation look like from your spouse’s perspective?
Over time, Allison was able to realize the impact her unspoken expectations had on her husband. He would think everything was fine, he would buy Allison a birthday present, and plan on celebrating her birthday in the low-key way his family had always celebrated birthdays when he was growing up, and then BAM! — on her birthday he would be on the receiving end of all her pent-up hurt and frustration. When Allison became more aware of how blindsided he felt, she felt compassion for him and took more initiative to change her part of their negative interaction cycle.
5) Practice Making Requests
Putting your desires into words and directly asking your spouse for what you want can feel risky. It opens you up to the possibility that your spouse could hear what you need and still not meet your need.
But I’ve learned that pushing through the discomfort and verbally asking my husband for what I need has made us closer as a couple. It’s helped me to open up to him, it’s helped him to know me better, and it’s helped us to trust and care for each other more.
The key elements of making a request are an expression of your feelings, a description of what you’re hoping for, and an acknowledgement of the other person’s situation. For example, I might say to my husband, “I understand that you’re very busy at work these days. [acknowledgement of the other person’s situation] But you know that we’re hosting everyone for the 4th of July this year, and I’m starting to feel really stressed out about it. [expression of my feelings] Could we take some time to look at our schedules and see if there might be some times that you can help me with preparations? [description of what I’m hoping for] It would mean a lot to me. I appreciate all that you’re already doing to help.”
6) Pour Out your Heart to God
For all of us, there will be times when our spouse isn’t meeting our needs, times when we are feeling lonely, misunderstood or frustrated. Our longing for someone to be attuned to us can be met in God, who knows us and loves us inside and out. Psalm 62:8 says, “Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.” When we turn to God for understanding, we can let our spouse be human and accept that they can’t read our mind.
Even though God already knows what we are thinking, he tells us, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7) God knows that there is something about asking that is good for us. Part of maturity is the ability to be aware of our needs and make respectful requests.
Expecting my spouse to read my mind damages our relationship. Asking and receiving builds our relationship. May we all learn to ask and receive.
Question: What do you think? What has helped you to stop expecting your partner to read your mind? You can leave a comment by clicking here.