“Assumptions are the termites of relationships.”
—Henry Winkler (actor)
In the last installment of this series, we talked about how expecting our spouses to be mind readers can lead to disaster in our marriages. Today we address the flipside of that problem: Attempting to read our spouses’ minds, otherwise known as assuming we know what someone else is thinking.
The Urban Dictionary definition of “assume” is “to make an ASS out of U and ME.” It’s a direct rip-off of a much older truism many of us heard growing up, but despite the saying’s long-term ubiquity, it seems many of us have missed its meaning or failed to take its lesson to heart, as one of the most common sources of conflict in marriage is the difference between what one spouse is actually thinking, and what the other spouse assumes he or she is thinking.
Whether we want them to or not, our assumptions speak volumes to our spouses about how we feel about them. Imagine for a moment, that you’ve just returned from a long day at work to find the house a total wreck; way worse than is normal even for your busy family. The kids are running wild. The eldest has been left in charge and is running the show Lord-of-the-Flies style. Meanwhile, your spouse is nowhere to be seen. You ask the eldest where your spouse is, and the child says nonchalantly, “Taking a nap.” If your first reaction is anger over your spouse’s “laziness,” you’re making a very different assumption than a person whose first reaction is to rush to the spouse’s side with concern, asking, “Are you okay? Have you fallen ill?” One comes from a place of condemnation, the other from love and concern.
I have a fairly common cognitive disorder that frequently causes me to lose track of or forget important things. This is frustrating for my husband, who is responsible and organized. Throughout our relationship, he has struggled with the assumption that my repeated failure to stay on top of schedules and tasks means I just “don’t care” about my family or running an efficient household. If I cared, he argues, I wouldn’t need so much help remembering things like when the school play is or when certain chores need my attention. They would naturally be a priority, he says, always at the forefront of my mind. No matter how many times my doctor or our therapist explains that my brain simply doesn’t work that way, he seems to have trouble accepting it. Therefore, he has frequently accused me of indifference toward himself and our children … a devastating and hurtful assessment that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Our fights over this issue, as you might expect, have been recurrent and intense.
I’m not innocent. Because I grew up in a critical household and married a frequently critical man, I have a terrible tendency to assume that every question my husband asks me is a loaded one – that if I fail to deliver the answer he’s looking for, I’ll fail the “test” he’s giving me. But sometimes a question is just a question, and my husband becomes exhausted and irritated by my endless attempts to read into the “true meaning” of each query. My assumption sends him a message just as hurtful as the one he sends me when he assumes I don’t care about our family—by assuming he’s always testing me, I’m telling him I don’t trust him to be straightforward.
In a perfect world we’d all drop any and all assumptions we’re carrying and just communicate with each other using our grown-up words. Instead of guessing what another person is thinking, we’d simply ask. Instead of expecting others to know what we want, we’d actually tell them. But communication requires us to venture out of our safe spaces into the unknown, where someone might surprise us or even disappoint us. We feel much more comfortable inside our own heads, where we can remain in blissful ignorance, even as we imagine we know everything.
If the risks of actual verbal communication are more than you think you’re up for right now, just make sure you understand that your assumptions are in and of themselves a powerful form of communication. So at a minimum, try to use them to build your partner up, instead of tearing each other down.
Simple Christian charity requires us to assume the best of other people, so start with your spouse. When you’re tempted to assume the worst about your partner’s thoughts or motivations, try to come up with a positive interpretation, instead. Before you jump to any conclusions, make sure those conclusions paint your spouse in the best possible light. Above all, remember that every conflict has two sides, and that yours won’t always be the right one.