Here’s a confession: I am a mind reader. That’s right, I can glance at my partner and delve deep into his feelings with just one look. I am also able to accurately interpret and detect an array of emotions based on body cues, perceived thoughts, and the phases of the moon. Okay, so I’m not actually a bonafide mind reader (in spite of how much I try!). The fact is, none of us are—and piecing together the clues can be even harder when it comes to our significant other. While our familiarity with each other can offer insight into their changing moods—we shouldn’t try to gauge how our partner’s feeling based on assumptions alone. According to psychologists, taking the time to understand and communicate effectively is the best way to increase our empathy and sense of closeness. However, the first, and most important thing to keep in mind, according to experts, is this:
It’s not all about you.
If your partner is withdrawing, in a funk, or refusing to interact with you, the reason is probably more complicated than it seems, says Amy McManus, a licensed therapist in Los Angeles who focuses on helping millennials with anxiety and relationship issues. “Often we assume our partner is mad at us, and we immediately get defensive,” she says. This can make you start arguing about something that might not be the real issue at all, which consequently makes it impossible to solve the actual problem. An interesting study published earlier this year dug into this exact dilemma. Researchers found that while couples do well at picking up on when their partner is happy, they might be missing out on other more subtle emotional clues. “We found that when it comes to the normal ebb and flow of daily emotions, couples aren’t picking up on those occasional changes in ‘soft negative’ emotions like sadness or feeling down,” said family psychologist Chrystyna D. Kouros, the lead author on the study. She also noted that regularly failing to pick up on these negative feelings can cause a cumulative effect, ultimately leading to problems within the relationship over time.
Assumptions can be relationship killers.
While many of us are proud of our honed mind-reading abilities, this is a big no-no according to Kouros, who emphasized that couples should stop assuming they know what their partner is feeling and alternatively pay more attention to each other and communicate more. Crystal I. Lee, PsyD, a Los Angeles licensed psychologist, echoes this. She explains that while one partner may incorrectly assume the other is feeling a certain way, this can lead the other to react in an unhelpful manner. For example, if you assume that your partner is upset about something you feel they shouldn’t be (and they’re not), “it might cause you to get angry or frustrated with them—which in turn, actually makes them upset, and then it develops into a fight” (pretty sure we’ve all been here before). But aside from deterring this unhelpful habit, Erik Pedersen, PsyD, a psychologist from Morgan Hill, California, urges us to take a closer look at our interior motivations. “More often, we are trying to intuit or make assumptions about what the other is feeling because the relationship is unstable and insecure,” he says. Whereas, in the opposite sense—when a relationship is stable and secure—we don’t have to assume what the other is feeling.
Stop and listen to your partner.
“One of the biggest things I tell my clients,” says Lee, “is that you should be listening to understand, not to respond.” Don’t listen with the goal of figuring out what you want to say or how to tear apart their opinion or how to catch them in a lie, she says. Also refrain from jumping in with rebuttals, opinions, and judgments until you really understand your partner’s point of view. Similarly, McManus affirms that if you are the listener, your role is simple: “Seek to understand. Stay curious. Listen.” You can always ask questions to clarify, just be careful that you don’t try to defend yourself. Always remember that listening doesn’t mean you are agreeing with your partner’s conclusions; you are simply acknowledging that their feelings are valid and worthy of being heard. Also, keep in mind the importance of giving your partner eye contact and waiting to respond, says Mary Silver, MSW, a certified life coach from Denver, Colorado. If you wait for around two to three seconds after they are done speaking, your response will be more tailored to them and not a knee-jerk reaction.
Pay attention to voice and tone.
If someone is happy and receptive, they will have a playfulness in their voice, explains Silver. “You will also notice it in their body language.” In regards to tone of voice, it can be very subtle; there may be a little bit of sarcasm in someone’s voice if they are feeling a little irritated or “off.” Check in with your partner in a non-confrontational way to get a sense of their needs. If their voice or tone is a little quieter, Silver says, they are likely in a reflective state; meaning they need to check in with themselves about how they are feeling or thinking about a situation (so it’s probably not a good idea to mention another topic like paying the bills). If your partner seems distracted and avoids eye contact, this does not mean they are not interested in you, Silver says. “A good tip to someone in this case is to ask your partner if they have a moment to talk with no interruptions.” You may notice that after asking this question, both you and your partner can cultivate a sense of respect for each other and the topic at hand if you put in the extra effort.
Practice direct communication.
Consider that we are always communicating. Even when we’re not talking, we’re still communicating in a variety of ways. Sometimes we even communicate contradictory messages, explains Pedersen. “The more time devoted specifically to ‘direct communication,’ the less ambiguity, and the more clarity,” he says. What happens when you stop communicating and put the relationship on the shelf? The big four: resentment, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness. “If you have all four of these, Pedersen adds, “it’s usually time to call it done.” Research backs up his assertion, as studies have shown that these telltale signs can predict divorce with over 90 percent accuracy. Renowned psychologist John Gottman, who founded the Gottman Institute, identified both contempt and stonewalling as significant contributors to marital malaise. If you and your partner find yourselves on this thorny path, take heart—it’s not too late to backtrack. Experts have identified the following skills that can help couples communicate more directly:
Simply put, during the “active listening” process, one partner talks and one partner listens. If you are the “talking partner,” you use “I” statements without blaming or criticizing, says McManus. You say things like, “I feel frustrated that I have to clean up a big mess in the kitchen again,” or “I feel worried that your friends are more important to you than I am.” These statements show solid ownership of your own emotions and do not place blame on the other person. McManus cautions against saying things like “I think you are being passive-aggressive when you say you will do something and you don’t do it.” Similarly, avoid anything that starts with “I think that you… .” A variation of this is “I feel ____ when you do ____.” This is valid; you aren’t blaming them directly, but it will be hard for the other person to remain neutral and not try to defend themselves. It’s better to say something like, “I feel worried when I don’t know what time you are coming home from hanging out with your friends.”
Don’t be afraid to ask!
If you are unclear as to how your partner is feeling, the best approach is to ask them. This would be in the form of being curious and supportive, not blaming or being defensive, says Silver. “It’s important to know what state of mind you are going into the conversation with.” If you are feeling sad, low, or a little wounded, it’s very likely you will bring this to a discussion. “Using ‘I’ statements and being open, transparent, and vulnerable will help your partner know what you are feeling and needing out of the interaction,” she explains. “It may be that you just need a hug.” Silver recommends allowing your partner to know what you need. If you don’t know what you need, explain that as well.
Learn each other’s emotional histories.
Life is both joyful and painful, and we are all conditioned by painful experiences. Pedersen insists: “It is always best to know of what painful experiences your partner’s ‘emotional truth’ is constructed.” He recommends couples take long hours sharing their history with each other. “Really open up about mom and dad, trauma, doubts, and insecurities,” he says. “Try to become as transparent as possible.” “If you don’t learn about your partner’s history of conditioned pain, then you will have to learn about it through conflict—which sucks,” Pedersen asserts. Knowing about their pain informs your response. If you find yourself in the midst of an argument, he suggests asking your partner where they have had this feeling in their life before. Part of this involves cultivating our own sense of understanding and compassion. “Knowing that your partner spent four hours waiting for their parent to call and wondering if they ever would when they were just 7 years old,” Pedersen points out, “may easily explain why they became so hurt and angry when you neglected to text this evening.” This creates a map that is useful in times of conflict, as understanding their history makes it easier not to feel personally attacked and validates why they would be upset. Ultimately, decoding our partner’s moods requires we take an active, empathetic interest in the inner world of our significant other. As Pedersen puts it, “It’s useful for couples to look at their partner and ask themselves, ‘Who is this being?’ After all, a relationship takes place in the here and now, never in the past or future.”