Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Mind Reading in a Good Marriage


"We've been married for 10 years; he should know what I want for my birthday." "She knows I need a night out with the guys. Why does she nag me about it?" From this perspective it seems as if one criterion for a good marriage should be that a spouse can anticipate the needs and wishes of the marriage partner. Over a number of years husbands and wives often gain a great deal of knowledge about each other, at times even being able to anticipate what the other person will say or do. A good marriage will build up a reservoir of common experiences, values and goals, sharing lives, sharing children, sharing a plan for the future. Why, then, do I hear so many complaints about the spouse? "He/she should read my mind; we've been married long enough." "Why doesn't he/she know what I want; I always want the same thing."

A commonly stated myth about a marriage is that "two become one." From this point of view it would appear that the marriage relationship should be an all encompassing mutuality in which every aspect of life is shared. It would certainly be wonderful if this were true. If our marriage partner could in fact anticipate all our needs, wants and desires, life would be truly satisfying. However, if you've been married more than a week, you realize that the honeymoon is over. A marriage in fact is composed of three entities: the husband, the wife, and the marriage relationship. (Not to mention the children, parents, in-laws, friends, bosses, neighbors.) You get the picture; life and marriage are much more complicated than the myth implies. So my advice today is to help marriage partners realize that the dreamed-for spouse who can read your mind is simply the dream of the mythical all-satisfying marriage partner. Marriage is a complicated and multi-factored relationship which must be prioritized to be sustained. A good marriage takes work and dedication (although some of the "work" can in fact be mutual fun, loving and playing together.)

So let's give up on the myth that your spouse can or should read your mind. Let's consider the importance of good communication in sustaining a marriage relationship. Actually mind reading is one of the least efficient forms of communication. If we want to communicate most efficiently and effectively, why not use our highly developed skill of speech to make sure our messages are received correctly. When we teach our young children to communicate we say, "use your words." So, let's follow our own advice. When you want your spouse to know and understand your needs and desires, the first step is to communicate your thoughts and feelings in words. At times this is more complicated than it sounds. Previous articles have discussed some of the strategies you can use in scheduling discussions, in choosing active listening between marital partners and in taking responsibility for your own behavior in the marriage.

Research shows the importance of positive communication in a good marriage. Your responses when your spouse requests attention are very important. Studies have shown that husbands in stable relationships respond with positive attention to their spouse 81% of the time, while wives respond similarly 86% of the time. Marriages headed toward divorce are dramatically different, with husbands responding with positive attention only 18% of the time, although wives in these marriages still respond to their husband 50% of the time.

Positive communication helps build up a "love bank" which provides "insurance" to help sustain marriage partners through the stresses and strains of daily conflicts, arguments and family crises. When problems arise, couples can draw upon this reserve of positive mutuality to de-escalate conflict and restore peace. While positive responses to the marriage partner certainly include nonverbal behaviors such as a smile, kiss or love pat, verbal communication is the most highly developed and effective means of communication between adults. Without positive emotional communication, marriage will become an empty shell which unfortunately may later be discarded. But you can avoid this fate with self-help or professional assistance. Mental health counselors and marriage therapists can assist husbands and wives either separately or together to prevent problems or help restore the important marriage relationship.