Research Study Reports on Key Communication Challenge in Relationships

In relationships, it may not come as a surprise that one of your parter's subconscious or conscious expectations of your interpersonal communications is for you to literally be a mind reader, referred to as Mind Reading Expectations (MRE) in a study by two professors. 

If you’ve been in a romantic relationship of any length, it’s likely that at one time or another you found yourself saying to your partner “what’s wrong?” and he or she replied with some version of, “you should just know what’s wrong.” Perhaps the next thought that crossed your mind was “what am I supposed to be, a mind reader?”  You may have even said it out loud.

Unfortunately, your retort may have brought you at least a little relationship trouble, according to a study published recently by Communication professors Courtney Wright and Michael Roloff (You Should Just Know Why I’m Upset: Expectancy Violation Theory and the Influence of Mind Reading Expectations on Responses to Relational Problems, Communication Research Reports, 2015). 

According to prior research that’s been around for nearly thirty years, couples, especially those experiencing distress, are prone to hold unrealistic beliefs about each other. One of these beliefs is MRE or Mind Reading Expectations: the conviction that each person in a relationship should clearly understand the other’s feelings, even those that are unexpressed. According to MRE, partners should be so empathic that they “should enact supportive behaviors without being told when and how to do so.” In other words, you’re supposed to simply know without asking whatever is bothering your significant other, and you should be ready to provide kindness, comfort, and understanding. Interpersonal relationship scholars believe that these expectations may have come from repeated exposure to portrayals of relationships in TV soap operas, romance novels, and in other media.

But real life relationships aren’t the same as those depicted in soap operas. In the real world, according to professors Wright and Roloff, “MRE might be common, as the ability to mind read is quite limited.” They point out that when one of us has done something harmful to the other and doesn’t realize it, often the offender legitimately has no clue that he or she made the other person angry. This lack of awareness, in the mind of the MRE believer, then becomes an even greater problem that the original “bad behavior" and often results in the “silent treatment.” 

The silent treatment is a particularly difficult response to deal with, as the perpetrator has no clue as to why he or she is being punished. Again, in the words of Wright and Roloff, “…although in the short term this strategy may help individuals who endorse MRE to vent their frustration, it is expected to increase the likelihood that the partner commits an offense again.”  Once this happens, the non-Mind Reader may be subject to even harsher sanctions, including combative behaviors, and, if prolonged, “…may decrease his or her investment in the relationship.”

What’s the takeaway from Wright and Roloff’s study?  Next time you think you’re falling in love, or even in “like,” make sure you tune up your psychic and empathetic skills for potential mind-reading expectations. 



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