How Well Can You Read Your Partner's Mind?
New research on couples shows the value of guessing your partner’s thoughts.
Think about the last time you and your partner had what, on reflection, was a silly argument. In these times of social distancing from the outside world, you’re with your partner pretty much 24/7 with little of the normal reprieve offered by your usual daily routines. In the confined environment of your home, little things can easily escalate.
Perhaps the two of you were in the kitchen at the same time as you proceeded to chop some onions for the evening meal. The next thing you know, your partner chimes in about how inefficiently you're working at what, for you, is a well-practiced task. For your part, you start to feel micromanaged. Rather than seeing the suggestions as coming from a place of wanting to be helpful, you think of them as overly controlling. The resulting dispute led each of you to go off and sulk in your separate corners until eventually, things calmed down.
The kind of misunderstandings that can occur in the lives of couples, whether small or large, are natural but, at the same time, easily avoidable. What if you knew that your partner literally was trying to help you by making a suggestion that would keep the onion chopping from causing your eyes to tear up unmercifully? This might solve a problem that has plagued you for years but up until now, it seemed to come with the territory. If you could look at the comment from this less defensive standpoint would you be less likely to see the suggestion for what it is, rather than as a criticism?
According to Ghent University’s Céline Hinnekens and colleagues (2020), previous research has shown that partners are remarkably poor at inferring each other’s thoughts and feelings. This ability to read your partner’s mind, known as empathic accuracy, averages only about 30-35 percent among married partners, as the authors note. Flipping this statistic around, it means that your chances of incorrectly reading your partner’s mind can be as high as 65-80 percent, or so the authors claim. No wonder that situation with the onion resulted in hurt feelings and resentment.
As Hinnekens and her colleagues point out, your overall mind-reading ability can also be affected by “sentiment override,” in which your feelings about your relationship as being on a positive or negative course affect your interpretation of the situation. If you’re dissatisfied, you’ll be more likely to assume your partner wants to inflict emotional pain, causing you to come to the types of distortions in mind reading that create further disputes. If you feel the relationship is good, then you'll be less likely to take things the wrong way.
Whatever the cause, low empathic accuracy doesn’t have to spell doom for the future of your relationship. As Hinnekens et al. point out, “Disagreements and conflicts commonly occur in intimate relationships, and although conflict can be threatening, it might also be perceived as an opportunity to reconcile partners' different goals, opinions, or concerns” (p. 104).
Although the statistics on empathic accuracy would argue against couples ever being able to become better mind readers, the fact that many relationships do last over time would suggest that the authors are right, and mind-reading is a teachable ability. Furthermore, individuals within couples may also differ in their mind-reading skills. Perhaps you were wrong this time about your partner’s thoughts and motives, but on other occasions, when an argument didn’t ensue, you knew exactly what your partner was thinking and both of you felt that your intimacy increased as a result.
The Belgian authors believe that rather than give couples a pass or fail score on empathic accuracy, more insight can be gained using measurements based on momentary interaction units. To test this approach, the research team recruited a sample of 316 married or cohabiting couples (all heterosexual) together for an average of 12 years (mean age 36 years old). Their mind-reading task began by having couples discuss while being video recorded, an area of conflict in their relationship. The discussion lasted for 11 minutes and took place in the neutral territory of a lab.
Immediately following the discussion, each partner sat in front of a laptop in which the conflict was replayed. The recording was paused every 90 seconds, and each time, the researchers asked participants to type the specific thoughts and feelings that they and their partners had at that very moment. The ratings also included judgments of the threat level of the interaction to each partner and to the relationship as a whole.
As you can imagine, with a large number of data points, the authors obtained a voluminous set of possible mind-reading categories from the written responses of the participants. The main categories of typed statements included ratings of the self, partner, and dyad (e.g. whether a statement represented a complaint), appraisal of the issue itself (what actually was being discussed), and views about the process (e.g. confrontation, understanding, constructive engagement).
Approximately half of all thoughts during the interaction took the form of process appraisal, meaning that while they were going through their discussion, participants tended to think (and believe the partner thought) about how things were going. Only one-third of all the thoughts participants reported were about the actual content of the matter being discussed. Finally, only about 10 percent of all ratings consisted of an evaluation of the partner’s behavior. Overall, most people thought about themselves as they reflected back on the interaction rather than about their partner.
This bias toward thinking about themselves rather than their partners also colored negatively the way they viewed the interaction. In articulating their own thoughts during the discussion, participants saw their approach as constructive but when thinking about what was going on in the partner’s mind, they perceived it as involving confrontation or detachment. People attribute more positive motives and problem-solving approaches to themselves compared to the way they view their partners.
What about the quality of mind-reading itself? The authors once again distilled the interaction data into categories but this time based on the absolute difference between the thoughts of Partner A and the thoughts of Partner B. The greatest effect of mind-reading errors, based on this analysis, occurred when partners drew the wrong conclusions about how their partners were feeling (positive, negative, or neutral) on about what their partners were thinking. Errors about the process proved to be less related to the overall empathic accuracy scores, despite the fact that during the actual discussion, individuals reported thinking more about process than anything else.
You’re therefore most likely to be a poor mind-reader, according to these findings, if your focus during an interaction is different than your partner’s. Returning to the original example, your partner is thinking about keeping you from crying as you chop that onion, but you’re thinking about how annoyed you are at this intrusion into your culinary style. Second, if you think you’re being constructive but your partner is the one ruining things, your mind-reading will also suffer. Things only get worse, furthermore, if you fall prey to sentiment override, letting your satisfaction or dissatisfaction color your perceptions.
The study’s very procedures, as it turns out, may just be the very steps you need to follow to improve your own relationship mind-reading particularly at times when you're relegated to being in each other's company on a nonstop basis. Sit down with your partner at a time when you’re not actually in an argument, and record your own conversation about a chronic sore spot in your relationship. Go back over the recording and jot down both your own and your partner’s perceived thoughts and feelings. Then compare notes. You’ll begin to be able to trace the course of where things went awry and gain some insight into how to avoid similar mind-reading gaps in the future.
To sum up, mind-reading is a skill that you can learn. It may take some effort to build your empathic accuracy, but it will pay off in long-term fulfillment in your relationship.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.
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