Assumptions to Avoid in Your Relationship

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Assumptions to Avoid in Your Relationship

What if I told you that you’ve never seen an emotion? You might say, “uhh… yes I have. I see people expressing emotions all the time. How would I know someone’s having an emotion unless I see and hear it?” The answer to this little brain puzzle is… you see behaviors that are usually linked to an emotion and therefore you assume that emotion is happening. You see someone cry, you assume they are sad. But sometimes people cry when they are very angry. Take my word as a couples counselor and relationship coach — the only way you can truly know what another person is feeling is if they tell you.

We in relationships make assumptions all the time about what our partner is thinking, feeling or what they will do next, and most of the time we’re right so our assumptions get confirmed. But while knowing your partner is a relationship strength, assuming you know all of your partner’s thoughts and feelings can get you stuck.

Why Do We Assume?

Something I say often when working with couples is that you are an expert on your partner. More than likely, you know your partner better than anyone else on this planet (if not, be sure to check out Gottman’s love maps). So as an expert, it’s natural to come to logical conclusions about your partner or the relationship. For instance, maybe you see your partner start to get upset during a conflict, so you naturally conclude they are going to walk away from the conversation.

Assumptions exist for a reason, and one of those reasons is to protect ourselves from getting hurt in the future. However, there is always a chance that a person will do something completely different than they usually do. There is no way to 100% perfectly predict how a person will react or what they will say in any situation. When we make assumptions in error, it can lead to undesired results, including shutting down the conversation or invalidating our partners.

Why Assumptions Can Be Dangerous For Relationships

Assumptions can damage your relationship in a few different ways: 

  1. There’s Always A Chance You May Be Wrong:

If 9/10 times your partner reacts a certain way when a certain trigger occurs, you naturally will start to assume when that trigger is present then that reaction will happen. 

But what about that one time when your assumption is wrong? What if your partner usually cries when they are sad, but this time they get quiet and distant instead? It’s possible you may assume since they aren’t crying that they want space, and so you stay away thinking you’re giving your partner what they need. But they are as sad as they are when they cry, so you “giving space” actually looks like ignoring or avoiding them. Moments like this can lead to one or both people in a relationship feeling misunderstood or not cared about.

  1. You Partner May Have A Different Perspective 

Imagine that when you see the world you are looking through a lens that is made up of so many different aspects to your life… your upbringing, your family of origin, your gender, your educational background, your likes and dislikes. There are so many different parts that make up you and your culture! 

When your partner is looking at an experience or a problem, they are looking at it through their own lens. Sometimes when we assume things, we think that our partner is seeing things through our lens, which leads to miscommunication and sometimes hurt feelings. 

  1. It Can Get You Caught In A Negative Cycle:

Sometimes when we feel confident in our prediction of what our partner will do next, we actually end up making it a self-fulfilling prophecy, a phenomenon that couples counselors call “negative sentiment override.” 

For instance, if you assume when your partner gets upset they will walk away, then you see your partner start to get agitated so you say, “I know you’re just going to walk away so you might as well do it!” Then when your partner walks away it may seem that your assumption was correct and you called them out before they got a chance to abandon you. However, what if your partner was not intending to walk away, but since you told them to do so, now it seems like the best option. And around and around the cycle goes!
Getting caught in negative patterns and making assumptions go hand in hand. Letting go of assumptions can sometimes help you to start breaking the negative patterns of interactions in a relationship.

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Common Assumptions that Couples Make

When a person says a sentence, there are three things that happen at the same time: what was said, what was meant, and how we interpret it. 

For instance, if I were to say to my partner: “So, you still haven’t done the dishes yet?” we have:

  • The words I actually said: “So you still haven’t done the dishes yet?”
  • The meaning behind the words: “I just noticed you haven’t done the dishes after telling me you would and I’m wondering when you will do them.”
  • The listener’s interpretation: “They think I’m lazy because I didn’t do the dishes and are upset with me now.”

The most common type of assumption I see is when a person thinks they know what their partner means, even though it is not what their partner actually said. This can lead the listener to feel defensive and the speaker to feel unheard. 

Another common assumption I see is when couples believe that when their partner hurts them emotionally, it comes from not caring. If your partner says something hurtful, it can feel natural to conclude that they were able to make such a comment because they don’t care about you. 

However, many times in relationships we say something hurtful, not because we don’t care about our partner, but because we ourselves are in emotional pain and reacting to that pain. Using empathy to see your partner’s reactions as coming from a place of hurt, rather than coming from a place of callousness, can help to soften assumptions and allow for conversations that can promote clarity. 

How to Stop Making Assumptions in Relationships

It’s easier said than done to stop making assumptions in relationships, but here are some tips that will help you be more open minded: 

  1. Check Your Assumptions 

Ask your partner for clarification about what they meant any time you catch yourself making an assumption. If you have a negative reaction to something your partner says, even if you feel confident you know the meaning behind their words, tell your partner what you heard them say. For Instance, “When you ask me if I still haven’t done the dishes yet, my assumption is you are upset with me and think I’m lazy. Is that what you wanted me to hear?”

Using reflective listening skills is helpful to check if what you perceived is what is actually happening. So tell your partner what you heard them say and allow them to either affirm that you got it right, or correct the assumption and elaborate further. Oftentimes, your partner’s meaning is less personal or attacking than it feels, so slow down and check if the assumption is correct before reacting.

  1. Remember That You Could Be Wrong 

Humility can be a relationship saver, and a powerful antidote to assumptions. Remind yourself on a consistent basis that, though you are an expert on your partner, no one can predict any person’s thoughts, emotions or behaviors all the time. Allow some space in your thinking for curiosity. Ask questions, use reflections, and give your partner the benefit of the doubt before reacting.

  1. Be Empathetic 

Assumptions happen sometimes when we see a situation through our own lens, not acknowledging or understanding our partner might have a completely different point of view. Empathy is understanding the perspective of another person while feeling with them. When we work on seeing things through our partner’s eyes and feeling what our partner feels, it allows us to let go of our assumptions and be open to their true thoughts and feelings (and the WHY behind them!). 

Support for Better Communication & a Stronger Connection 

I hope you found this article on how to avoid assumptions in relationships helpful. Improving communication with your partner can be challenging, especially when negative relationship cycles have taken hold. 

If you’d like my support in changing the way you communicate, hearing each other in new ways, and building a stronger relationship where you both feel understood and deeply loved, I invite you to schedule a free consultation


Jenna P., MA, LPC, LMFT

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