Upset couple having a disagreement at the beach

“Assumptions are the termites of relationships.” –Henry Winkler


Adding on Facebook, texting members of the opposite sex (in a heterosexual relationship), openly flirting at a party, sending explicit sexual emails and photos, having an emotional or sexual affair–these things are on a continuum of actions which clearly undermine relationships; no one would argue with this. However, there is a much more subtle way to undermine a relationship, and this is making assumptions about your partner.

How do assumptions happen? Usually they are not consciously planned, they result when we feel our needs are not met. They happen very quickly (0.1 seconds) and the result is predictable—escalating frustration and/or emotional withdrawal. When we have a need, we expect our partner to meet the need (often without clearly stating what it is and why it is important to us). When the need is not met, we can become frustrated and we turn up the volume. Our partner hears our “request” as a complaint—blame and criticism, and becomes defensive, passive, shutdown, or returns fire. Our need is met even less and we assume our partner is not meeting our needs on purpose. This is where the undermining of our relationship occurs, because if they are not meeting our needs on purpose, they must be malicious, in love with someone else, etcetera.

The definition of “assumption” is 1. Something accepted as a truth or certainty without proof. 2. The act of taking on the power and responsibility for a situation. When we assume our partner’s motives, and this includes telling them how they feel (“You are so angry” or “Why are you in such a foul mood?”), we do both. We describe their feelings or motives out of frustration (not out of being helpful) and in doing so we frustrate ourselves further because we take on the power of describing our partner’s moods/motives, all the while feeling our own needs are left by the wayside. When reactive, we rehearse our hurt and the proof of this (any perceived slight can be “proof”). We then proceed to “litigation,” where we are the prosecutor, judge, and jury. Our partner acts similarly.

The words “You never…”, “You always…”, or “You should…” are pretty good indications we are in assumption territory. We are reacting from the belief that our partner is not meeting our needs on purpose, and thus needs to have their error pointed out to them. You’ve probably never heard your partner thank you for this –“Yes, thanks, I was doing that to you and didn’t realize and will change my terrible ways now.” There is no such thing as constructive criticism in a relationship; it is all destructive (John Gottman). The whole assumption process is like an endothermic reaction—it sucks more energy than is generated and we are left even more frustrated. Avoiding assumptions requires a different approach: unassuming our partner’s motives/mood and asking.

Avoid assumptions by describing your feelings and asking for what you do need:

  1. Pause and Increase Self-Awareness: Assumptions are not innocent, helpful thoughts or statements. At the point where you are tempted to blame your partner and verbalize an assumption, stop and check-in with yourself, asking, “What is it that I feel right now?”
  1. State your Feeling: This is the “I statement” of pop psychology. Feeling is all about you, not a description of your partner and what they are doing wrong. “I feel unappreciated, unwanted, lonely” describes yourself. “I feel you don’t pay enough attention to me, you don’t appreciate…” is not a feeling statement; it is criticism. Stick with your feelings. Also, a description is not a feeling “I feel that what happened is…” is not a feeling.” [If you have trouble identifying your feelings email me for a sheet of tips on how to do this]
  1. State your Need: Ask for what you do need as a positive request. Avoid the temptation of telling your partner what you do not want. Instead stick with what you do need. To do this, you make yourself a little vulnerable because there is a possibility your partner will not be able to meet that need. To make it more likely your need is going to be met make it as short, specific, and gentle a request as possible (one that is about you, not your partner): “I know this is about me, my feelings and triggers. I am feeling really feeling lonely lately and it would be great if you could eat dinner with me every day. Just the two of us, with some small chit chat and hearing about each other’s day. I’ll leave my phone on the fridge. Could we do that?”

When making a request, it helps if your partner hears it as being about you rather than as a criticism or comment about himself or herself. And it also helps if they try their best to meet that need. If this is not happening, see me for some in-office coaching; sometimes it takes a little practice to get out of the habit of attack-defend-attack/withdrawal when trying to get a need met.

If assumptions undermine relationships, stating your needs, receiving understanding, and getting as many needs met as possible build termite-proof marriages.