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Do You Need Your Partner to Be a Mind Reader?

We expect our partners to know what we're feeling. What if they don't?

Jamie: “Do you even know why I’m mad?”

Chris: “I don’t. You just seem angry or upset today.”

Jamie: “I am—and you should know why I’m mad!”

Chris: “But, I don’t know why you’re mad.”

Jamie: “And that’s the problem”

The above interaction is one that some of us are all too familiar with. The script implicates a concept recently discussed by Wright and Roloff (2015), that of “mind reading expectations" (MRE). As the authors explain, individuals who hold mind reading expectations expect their relationship partners to understand their needs and feelings without having to be told. In a sense, MRE assume that "intimates should be sufficiently empathic that they should enact supportive behaviors without being told how and when to do so” (p. 11). Not surprisingly, the authors note that their study of MRE grew out of clinical psychologists’ encounters with "couples suffering from marital distress” (p. 11). Essentially, distressed couples held “unrealistic beliefs” about MRE.

To better understand this process, Wright and Roloff surveyed 106 individuals currently in romantic relationships. Before completing surveys, participants were asked to recall "situations in which their partners acted in a manner that either made them: a) angry, b) depressed, or c) disappointed, but after showing these emotions, the partners failed to realize they had done so” (p. 14). In other words, participants recalled a time they felt a negative emotion but their partners failed to indicate they recognized that emotion. They also completed scales gauging how upset their partners’ lack of awareness made them feel.

The goal of the study was to understand how holding MRE related to reactions—that is, after recalling a time your romantic partner did not recognize your negative emotion, how did your MRE affect your reaction of either being combative toward your partner and/or enacting the silent treatment. The authors found that those individuals who held MRE also reported feeling upset about their partners’ lack of awareness; acting combative towards their partners; and using the silent treatment. (Don’t forget how dangerous the silent treatment is.)

Importantly, reports of how upset partners were by their partners’ lack of awareness mediated the relationships between MRE expectations and reactions like acting combative or giving the silent treatment.

Collectively, the findings here indicate that MRE can be problematic in relationships, particularly when considering the reactions identified by Wright and Roloff. Our partners are not mind readers, and when we become upset by their lack of mind-reading abilities and engage in the silent treatment or become combative, we essentially begin a spiral in which we fight about fighting—and not about the issue that ultimately caused us to feel upset, depressed, or hurt.

Remember: It’s not what you fight about, it’s how you fight—and the way you fight, or handle conflict, can predict whether or not you’ll get divorced. So, make sure to work on managing those MRE.


Dr. Sean M. Horan is a communication professor. Follow him on Twitter @TheRealDrSean.

Wright, C. N., & Roloff, M. E. (2015). You should just know why I’m upset: Expectancy violations theory and the influence of mind reading expectations (MRE) on responses to relational problems. Communication Research Reports, 32, 10-19. doi: 10.1080/08824096.2014.989969