Separating assumptions from behaviors

All of us bring certain assumptions to our intimate relationships, expectations we don’t have of anyone else. They are specific to those with whom we are closest.  Typical positive expectations include a steady supply of undivided attention, words and gestures of love and caring, loyalty, constancy, sex, companionship, agreement, friendship, fidelity, honesty, trust, respect and acceptance. Our negative expectations are their opposites, fearing that we will be neglected, betrayed, denied love and closeness, criticized, disrespected and not accepted. While we do not think about it consciously, what we expect is what we have experienced in the past with others, usually our parents or siblings, who we have depended upon for getting our needs met.

When our positive expectations are not fulfilled, we feel disappointed, let down, worried, hurt, resentful, and/or bitter. Our sense of safety and security in the relationship is diminished. Self-esteem may be injured.  And we tend to feel stressed. How we react to this stress may depend on our habitual Stress Style (Blamer, Placater, Computer, Distractor). Most people not only do not think about their assumptions and expectations, but also rarely communicate them to their partners. And, when disappointed by an unfulfilled expectation or hurt by a negative expectation that happens, most people do not speak the immediate feelings of disappointment or hurt, but instead engage their stress style. All of this creates considerable mischief (confusion and distance) in relationships.

Our assumptions and expectations remain hidden, ready to be triggered by our partner’s behavior or lack of behavior. Once triggered we have rather intense negative reactions, which usually lead to distance and despair through Stress Styles, heavy control, power struggles, etc. It is important to find ways to uncover the hidden assumptions and expectations so that sudden confusing and escalating negative reactions do not spoil our mutual capacity to enjoy the relationship.

The first challenge is to discover what our partners are really thinking or doing when they do not act in the expected positive way, or when they engage in behavior that looks like one of our feared negative expectations.  A similar need arises when our partners are not congruent, meaning when their words and non-verbal expressions do not match; in moments of incongruity, you need to figure out which message to receive and to clarify your partner’s meaning. Learning how to check out with our partners what they are really thinking and feeling, especially when they are behaving in a confusing, disappointing, hurtful, or incongruent fashion, is critical to sorting out what our partners mean by their words or behavior. Most of us, if we could, would try to read our partner’s minds to find out what they really mean. Even if you could read minds, such plucking of information from the head of your partner would be rude and intrusive. Yet, it is equally rude and intrusive to ASSUME that you know what your partner thinks and feels rather than finding out through asking.  The consequences of assuming can be devastating, especially when we assume the worst when we really do not know.

Remember, the word “ASSUME” makes an “ASS” out of “U” and “ME”!

~ Lori Heyman Gordon

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