Read This Article. Save a Relationship.

shutterstock_1956050by Amy Yeager

It’s Valentine’s Day! So you know what people all over the country are doing—critically analyzing their significant others’ cards, gifts, thoughtful words, and romantic plans (or lack thereof) to figure out whether their relationship is thriving or doomed to fail.

To some extent, this kind of thinking happens all through the year. Do you ever wonder whether your potential love interest is “just not into you”? Whether your partner is getting bored? Or whether the fire has gone out of your marriage? Keep reading. Learn how acting on these types of thoughts can damage otherwise healthy, happy relationships, and what you can do to turn things around.

Why Sally Left Harry
I’ll start with a story of a good friend of mine (names and other identifying details have been changed):

I was shocked when Sally told me that she’d ended her relationship with Harry. They’d been together for just a few months, but it sounded as though they’d developed a strong, deep connection. She had told me many times how much she loved being with him, and from everything I’d heard and seen of the two of them together, the feeling was mutual.

“Apparently he just wasn’t that committed,” she said. “He didn’t care about being with me when I really needed him.” Sally came to this conclusion when a friend of hers was diagnosed with cancer. She was devastated and wanted a lot of empathy from Harry, but at the time, he was preparing for a major presentation at his high-pressure job. He had seemed distracted and emotionally distant for the past two weeks, and Sally was afraid that leaning on him too much would just push him further away. So rather than asking directly for support, she said, “I know you’re really busy with work. I think I’ll go out shopping with Jen and Kate and try to distract myself.” The response she wanted was, “No, honey, I’m never too busy to be here for you. Let’s talk.” The response she received was, “That sounds like a good idea.”

Later that day Sally sent Harry a text, “Things just aren’t working between us. I don’t know if I can do this anymore.” Again, the response she wanted (“No! Let’s talk about how we can make things work”) was a far cry from the response she got (“Well, okay then.”) Harry made no effort to reach out and try to repair their relationship. That left no doubt in Sally’s mind that he truly didn’t care about her. “Clearly this is what he wanted,” she told me. “I’m sure he’s happy he’s free to date other women now.”

Relationship Killers: Unchecked Mind-Reads
This sort of interaction is depressingly common in dating life. If we haven’t developed a deep level of trust with the other person, it may feel too risky to ask direct questions like “Are you still feeling satisfied with our relationship?” or “Is now an okay time to talk about something that’s upsetting me?” We worry that they’ll say no, or will say yes but not really mean it. So instead, we resort to indirect ways of figuring out what’s going through their head. We develop “mind-reads”—assumptions about their thoughts and feelings that we’re convinced are true, even though they’ve never told us directly. (“He isn’t really committed.” “She resents how much time I spend at work.” “He doesn’t like visiting my family but is too polite to say so.“ And so on.) And often these assumptions are terribly off-base.

Mind-reads erode many long-term relationships as well. The longer we hold on to these assumptions without checking them out, the more they start to feel like the truth. If you’ve been certain for forty years that your husband or wife thinks you’re selfish or doesn’t respect your career choice, it will be very hard for them or anyone else to convince you otherwise. More than one person has told us that if they’d understood more about mind-reads while they were married, they might never have gotten divorced.

Of course, some mind-reads are true. It’s possible that your partner really is angry or disappointed or frustrated with you. In that case, checking out your assumption is—if anything—even more important. It gives you a chance to try to resolve the underlying problem before it’s too late. (Or, in some cases, to realize sooner rather than later that you don’t actually want to be in the relationship.)

Stop the Speculation—Get a Reality Check
The first step in overcoming a mind-read is awareness: recognizing that this thought is your assumption, not reality. In some cases you might just stop there. But if the mind-read has a significant impact on you—affecting the choices you make, what you say and don’t say, the way you feel toward the other person, and so on—it’s often worthwhile to take the further step of testing it against reality.

Testing a mind-read is a two-step process:

1. State your thought.
(“Sometimes I think you’re having second thoughts about our decision to stop dating other people.” Or “I’m concerned that you might be upset about the long hours I’ve been working lately.” Or “I’m thinking that you might be disappointed about going to my parents’ house rather than staying home.”)

2. Ask a yes-or-no question.
(“Is that true?” or “Are you feeling that way?”)

No strategy can guarantee an honest answer to questions about tough personal issues. However, presenting your concern in this simple, direct way greatly increases your chances of getting a truthful response.

If you’d like to try checking out your mind-reads, start with topics that aren’t too emotionally charged. You might talk to an old, close friend about your thought that she disliked your last haircut or someone you used to date (so long as having her say yes wouldn’t bother you very much). Get plenty of practice before you move on to big relationship issues with your significant other, so you can have those conversations without getting too anxious or upset.

A Happy Ending
What ever happened to Harry and Sally? I’m happy to report that they are now back together. Harry eventually did reach out to Sally, and told her he was upset about the way things ended between them. She said she was too. They both acknowledged that the intensity of Harry’s work had been a challenge for their relationship.

Harry told Sally he’d been worried that she was dissatisfied with him as a boyfriend because his job consumed so much of his time and energy. He’d interpreted her “things aren’t working” text as proof that she was fed up with that side of his life. (In other words, he’d had upsetting mind-reads about her.)

Sally told him that wasn’t true; the big problem for her was the conclusion she’d started to draw from his limited energy and availability—that he wasn’t feeling invested in their relationship. She’d had recurring worries that he secretly wanted to date other women. This was a total surprise to Harry, since more dating was the last thing on his mind. It was hard enough for him to fit one relationship into his schedule. But for Sally, whose last boyfriend had cheated on her multiple times, that’s the first place her mind went. (This is a common problem; many inaccurate mind-reads come from projecting old relationship problems onto a new partner.)

Spread the Word, Save a Relationship
You now have valuable knowledge about a very common, very destructive type of communication, as well as a strategy to stop it in its tracks. Don’t keep this information to yourself. If someone you care about makes comments like, “I can tell he’s still in love with his ex” or “I know she’s angry with me,” share the concept of mind-reads. Pass on this blog post or, if you have our book, Chapter 4. You just might save a relationship.