Miscommunication in Relationships: Can you recall the last time you felt confused in your relationship because you couldn’t find an explanation for the behavior of your partner? The last time you felt worried that things might not be going well because something happened that seemed like a bad sign?
Miscommunication in relationships is more common than you might think. When there isn't an open and honest conversation around what you're feeling, expecting, or needing from your partner, miscommunication is bound to happen. Maybe you’ve even found yourself wrestling with some thoughts like these:
If she hasn’t returned my text message in the past three hours, she must be upset with me.
If he isn’t very talkative during dinner, he must be wondering if we should keep seeing each other.
It’s been a long time since we’ve been intimate. He must not find me attractive anymore. Or maybe he’s seeing someone else?
In each of these scenarios, there is one piece of information that is clearly missing – the thoughts of our partners. Our own effort to fill in those gaps with what we assume they must be thinking is indicative of something therapists sometimes refer to as mind reading. And while that’s technically a superpower, it can be a major hindrance to our relationships, leading to severe miscommunication.
Communication is Key in a Relationship
In my experience as a relationship coach, I would argue that some level of mind reading happens in every relationship. At its most basic level, it is simply the belief that we know what another person must be thinking or feeling at a given moment. This miscommunication in relationships comes from an innate tendency we have as people to fill in the gaps around things we don’t fully understand. Unfortunately, most of us have a bent toward filling in those gaps with the worst-case scenarios. We assume the worst so that we’re surprised when that’s not the case, rather than assuming the best and being disappointed when reality doesn’t measure up.
While the impulse to do this is perfectly normal, the consequences of it can be incredibly harmful to our relationships. We end up in fights over problems that don’t exist. We attack the character of the person we love most because we misinterpreted an event. We assume that the worst-case scenario simply has to be true so that we can guard against being hurt.
The impacts of these beliefs in our relationships are real because something is real if it is real in its consequences. It doesn’t ultimately matter if they are actually true or not. If we believe that our partner meant to hurt us when they truly didn’t, we will still treat them like they did. The impact on the relationship is real.
This is where communication is key in a relationship: having healthy communication that connects you to your partner vs. assuming you already know what they are thinking.
Assume the Best of Your Partner
What if we didn’t fill in the gaps with the worst possible version of events? What if we made the intentional choice to assume the best about a situation when the information was missing? What if we went a step further and actually asked our partners to tell us what they mean rather than trying to read their minds?
Here are three guidelines that I teach my online couples coaching clients that can help you and your partner do this on a routine basis.
Couples Counseling Communication Tips to Avoid Miscommunication in Relationships
#1 Assume the best about what your partner means in a given interaction.
We are all guilty of running the instant replay in our heads after a conversation with our partner. Questions flood our minds as we reflect on what was said. What did he mean when he said this? Was she implying that I was responsible for all of this? This tendency to overanalyze leads us to walk away from interactions and only later decide that something happened that we should be upset by. When we find ourselves reflecting on a conversation and this happens, instead of believing that our partner’s comments or actions were meant to hurt us, we can choose instead to assume that they care about us and did not mean to cause any harm.
#2 If you are hurt by an interaction, ask your partner (directly) to clarify what they meant.
We often want our partners to fully understand us, but it takes more effort on our part to invest the time needed to make sure we fully understand them. When we find ourselves hurt, we can allow the hurt to serve as an invitation to deeper understanding. We can reach for our partners and ask if they meant to be hurtful in what they did. This gives our partners the chance to tell us what they were thinking or feeling when something happened, providing additional clarity as we determine whether or not the injury was intentional, accidental, or simply the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding.
#3 Ask yourself if there might be other explanations for something your partner did that might give them the benefit of the doubt.
Sometimes, we are short with those closest to us because we feel animosity toward them. Oftentimes, we are short with those closest to us because we feel hangry. Could there be a more benevolent explanation for the interaction that has upset us? None of this is a denial of our right to tell someone that something they did hurt us; this is simply an invitation to not assume that our partner was being malicious toward us when it happened. Sometimes a text gets missed because it was opened in a meeting and they haven’t had a chance to respond – it doesn’t have to mean we’re being ignored on purpose.
Create Space for Intentional Communication
The space we create for our partners to share their intentions with us is critically important. When we create internal narratives around what another person must have meant without actually asking them to share their intentions or perspective with us, we run the risk of expending valuable emotional energy being upset with them over something that is largely the creation of our own imagination.
We would do well to leave the power of mind-reading on the shelf and instead choose to utilize one of the simplest but hardest to execute powers in our relationships – open and honest communication.
Benjamin Jones, M.S.