My husband and I were recently asked to participate in a Newlywed Game activity with other couples in front of several hundred people at a summer camp for adolescent girls. I feel pressure at events like these because someone always manages to harass me with some version of “OK Mrs. Marriage Therapist Lady—let’s see what you’ve got.” It’s as if my entire professional career hangs in the balance of reading my husband’s mind for answers to 5 questions. In my estimation, the Newlywed Game is just mind reading for dummies, AKA “How to pick a fight with your spouse without even trying.”
On the way up in the car, my husband suggested that we practice. I was feeling good about our matched responses when he pointed out that, “Their questions aren’t going to be this easy—you know they are going to think of obscure questions to ask.” At my agreement, he directed me to “think of some obscure questions.” “Umm…I think by definition obscure questions are….obscured, so….questions we aren’t supposed to be able to figure out,” I responded. “Yeah,” my husband agreed, “but you’re a marriage therapist—so think of some,” which sounded a lot like, “Dance, puppet!” “Again,” I repeated, slower this time, “By definition, obscure questions are…” “Oh never mind,” he cut me off and wondered aloud why I had to be so difficult.
Sure enough, right out of the gate, the first question, to husbands, was, “My wife is a natural born (blank).” “Wow,” I thought, “This is going to be worse than I thought—so many choices—I hope he’s nice.” I quickly wrote “Reader,” crossing my fingers that my husband would recall the many times I had recounted my obsession with the kindergarten book corner.
We were chosen to reveal our answers first. Feeling optimistic, I held up my card simultaneously with my husband’s, which was met with an eruption of laughter. “Oh no,” I asked, “What did you write?” He showed me his card which radiated “LOVER,” in all caps, underlined in bright red ink. I raised my eyebrows and threw up my hands, mouthing “Wha….???” conveying, “Of all the available words in the English language, you really chose the word, ‘lover,’ dripping with a variety of potentially salacious interpretations…in front of the youth?” He whispered, “I was about to write ‘reader,’ but that sounds boring and you’re definitely not boring.” “OK, can you please remember that we are going for accuracy and not scandal?” I entreated.
I was excited that we were in the running for the win when wives were asked, “Name something that your husband is good at that no one else knows about.” I enthusiastically scribbled “Juggling,” with hurried penmanship, desperately attempting to telepathically transmit my answer to my spouse.
As the answers were revealed, a few couples got a match on “Golf.” “Lame,” I judged, “That’s cheating…basically a safe answer that technically doesn’t meet the standards of something ‘other people don’t know about.’” I felt fleetingly virtuous and hopeful about my legitimate response before my complete deflation when the moderator frowned and pronounced our answers a mismatch. I turned toward my husband, “What did you…Waterskiing? Seriously? That’s not something people don’t know about!”
“But can he juggle while waterskiing?” someone heckled.
“Well,” he explained, “I was about to put ‘juggling,’ but then I decided I’m really not good at juggling.” “No,” I argued, “Compared to a professional juggling circus clown you’re not good. Compared to the average population, you’re really good.” He rolled his eyes. “Plus,” I continued, “People know you waterski.” “People don’t know I waterski,” he contested. “Are you kidding me?” I was so confused, “You have two different ski boats in our driveway alternating all summer long depending on your mood for the wake you want to ski that day. I think the cat’s out of the bag…people know you waterski…at least more than know you juggle.” “But I’m not good at juggling,” he repeated, which just increased my frustration. He was focusing on the first part of the question and I was focusing on the last part. “Just stop. We aren’t going to agree on this,” I declared, and he was happy to drop it.
A half hour later when we walked into the camp of our local congregation, the camp cook called out to me, “Hey Lori, the first thing the girls said when they walked into camp is that your husband told everyone you are a natural born lover.” I shot him a look in “Told you so,” fashion. Then, I explained our mismatch on the juggling question. “But I’m not good at juggling,” he argued again.
“Watch…be amazed!” I told the group in front of us as I tossed him some oranges. “Let them decide. Juggle,” I ordered, which I’m sure sounded to him like “Juggle, clown!” He was surprisingly cooperative as he smoothly juggled the oranges in the air, occasionally switching up his impromptu routine. “We didn’t know you could juggle,” several people oohed and aahed. “Right,” I made eye contact with him, “You didn’t. That’s exactly my point.” “But I’m not good,” he started in again. “OK…right…you should probably keep your day job instead of running away with the circus, but you juggle well…at least well enough. Observe…are they not entertained?” I gestured toward his adoring fans. “OK, you were right. I should have written juggling,” he conceded as I walked away, worn down by the struggle.
This exercise in futility reminded me of my first year of grad school in a marriage and family therapy. We were taught how common and harmful “mind reading,” is in marriage. Spouses frequently assume that they know what their partners are thinking and make judgments based on those assumptions, which then direct their behaviors. We don’t bother to verify because we are so certain we are correct.
Mind reading is also a problem when one spouse expects the other to know what he/she is thinking. A common example starts with the words, “You should have known….” I can confidently report that this tendency is alive and well in the annals of “How can I ruin my marriage today?” It might even be more common than the first type, and is at the core of many an anniversary fail.
In actuality, all of us are natural born mind readers. Social convention requires it. Human interaction is founded upon assessing others in social settings. We naturally decipher non-verbal signals, comparing them to verbals for congruency. Then, we act accordingly. In close personal relationships like marriage, we get so good at reading our partners that we are unwilling to admit when we get it wrong and almost offended when they think differently than we do.
Did you notice what happened when my husband and I disagreed? I tried to persuade him that my thinking was right. He tried to convince me that his thinking was correct. What we didn’t do was get curious about the other’s view and ask for more understanding or even take the time to try to see it from an alternative perspective. Our cognitive biases are so fixed that it requires active intention to consider alternative explanations from our own.
The antidote to mind reading is to ask for understanding and to toy with the idea that someone else’s viewpoint might be valid…and not necessarily threatening to the relationship.
My husband I were both right…sort of…if you understand where we were both coming from. Yes, there are many humans who juggle better than my husband, and yes, there are many people who don’t know he water-skis, and the bottom line is we were both disappointed that we didn’t mind read accurately for the win.
But we will be so prepared to win next time…especially if I can predict all of those obscure questions.
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