People’s words and behaviour can be very difficult to understand. Just think how the word ‘Yes’ can mean so many different things. Like enthusiastic agreement: “I’d love to!”
But with a slightly different stress it becomes grudging acceptance: “I hear you.” Or even total disbelief.
And yet mostly you figure it all out effortlessly. Spotting deceit, ambiguity or hidden meanings. Understanding other people’s needs, feelings and interests. Sharing grief and seeking friendship.
This ability is called your “theory of mind”. It’s a kind of instinct, hard wired into your brain, that helps you to make sense of other people’s feelings, emotions and behaviour, and allows you to interact with them socially.
It’s hard to be with someone whose theory of mind is poorly developed. They’ll drive you nuts with their lack of empathy and support.
Even though, some develop a range of canned responses that can sound completely normal: “... that must have been difficult...” But you’ll soon notice that they use the same responses over and over again, and that their concern fades far too quickly to be genuine.
Their conversations can feel monotonous and frustrating. With few opinions, and far too much trivial detail, facts and logic. They completely miss hints and body language. It feels as if they’re deliberately refusing to open up to you, but actually they just don’t understand feelings at all. They generally don’t enjoy emotional novels or movies.
Fortunately, our theory of mind usually works very well — though it can let you down. Especially with people you know well, like your partner. Because you interpret what they do from your existing knowledge of their preferences, moods, and so on.
But these can change, and so if you always react to your partner in the same way, you could easily be wrong.
Or maybe how you work out what your partner means is actually based on stuff from your own past.
A previous relationship for example. Your ex let you down, so if your partner says something your ex might have said, you’re instantly suspicious. Even though they actually have no intention of hurting you.
So watch for the possibility that you’re misjudging your partner’s words. Instead of assuming they’re criticising you, for example, ask yourself whether maybe they’re trying to be funny. Or try reacting as if what they meant was the nicest of all the possibilities.
And if it definitely was a barbed comment, try ignoring it completely. Or saying something neutral like. “OK, I’ll think about that.” Do that, and the moment will probably pass — and be less likely to occur again. Whereas if you rise to the bait, you’ll just end up in a fight.
So always question your assumptions about what’s going on in your partner’s mind. Because there’s always a chance that they’re not actually thinking what you think they are. Instead, try reacting as if they’re being nice to you, all the time. And your relationship will definitely improve!