In my practice over the years, I have watched couples behave toward each other in ways that scream “unhealthy.” Often, these behaviors are the outcome of two mental activities that we define in our dictionaries as “assumption” and “projection.”
In this context, the relevant definition of assumption is: “A thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.”
The relevant definition of projection, as in psychological projection, in this context is: “involves individuals attributing their own thoughts, feeling and motives to another person.”
The first indication that the processes of assumption and projection are taking place is often of a visual nature – one partner is speaking and the other partner is rolling their eyes or raising their eyebrows or shaking their head, often in despair. They have heard this before. The verbal correlative might be, “No! Not true,” “I wasn’t thinking that,” or “That wasn’t why I said that or did that.” In response, their partner’s visual and verbal responses will be similar: eye movements, but perhaps marked by a more aggressive outburst of “That’s bullshit” or “Why can’t you just own your stuff?” Yet throughout the exchange not an ounce of factual data is provided in support of the attribution. Does that matter? Apparently not, as the accusatory partner is convinced that despite their spouse’s protestations, they know the real truth: “I know why you chose not to come up to bed with me. You don’t want to be with me. You’ve lost your attraction to me. I repulse you.” When the partner replies, “That’s not true. I fell asleep in front of the TV and I didn’t want to wake you up. It was after midnight,” they might as well be whistling in the wind.
There are countless opportunities to insult and disbelieve your spouse, many seemingly of a trivial nature. Yet don’t be misled by their banality. They accrue over time with a vengeance – like layers of plaque on a formerly healthy set of teeth. They can play like a daily stream of domestic rapping but the buildup of negative lyrics produces a pretty ugly song. Here’s a sampling:
- “You’re late for dinner because you have no respect for my cooking or my hard work.”
- “You forgot to call me before you left the office because you just can’t be bothered.”
- “You leave the lights and the TV on all the time because you couldn’t care less that I have to work for every single dollar that pays that bill.”
- “You spend, spend, spend – you just don’t give a damn about me.”
- “You incite the children to giggle and make fun of me at the dinner table because you think I’m a bad parent and a stick in the mud.”
- “You control the checkbook because you think I’m an idiot.”
- “You let your parents walk all over me because you’re more loyal to them than you are to me. I think you like them better too.”
- “You looked at that woman because you think she’s hot and I’m not.”
- “You’d rather be with that guy over there because he’s a rich big shot and I’m just a guy working the daily grind. And what’s more, you’re leading him on. I can tell.”
Take note, all the sentences begin with “YOU” which is the operative first word in an accusation or a projection.
Likely there are multiple reasons for many of these accusations. And likely a good percentage are projective – stemming from the wounded party’s inner confusion, lack of self-worth, family history or unacknowledged ambivalence toward their own choices or their relationship. But since the accuser is so sure that their interpretation is correct, other possible causes never get explored.
Based on the strength of their conviction, one must ask, “Are folks believing that they can read each other’s minds?” I’d say yes. In fact, they are relying on their mind to do the work for two. Here’s how it happens. There is a psychological phenomenon called projection. We humans use it all the time. But it’s pretty unconscious, under the radar, so we don’t know that we are “doing it.” The example above is a classic projection/assumption that I’ve seen in my work. Someone is feeling insecure about their sexual attractiveness. They have gained weight or aged or both or may never have felt “good enough” in the body department. Who does? Or they left a prestigious position in business to raise their family and somehow that is just not cutting it as a source of self-esteem. Perhaps there has been a recent decline in the frequency of intimacy. They could be experiencing a reduction in their own libido for various reasons. If the couple touched on the topic prior to therapy, the conversation likely deteriorated in a similar fashion. The often-complex reasons for a decline in sexual intimacy – if articulated – didn’t match the assumption/projection so they were dismissed. “You’re just making excuses.” Rather than seek out other sources for their feelings, the wounded spouse ascribes negative attributes to their partner that feel right because they match up with a script that their unconscious has authored. “I don’t believe you. You just won’t admit that I look old and fat.” In fact, their partner could be less sexual; they may be depressed, ill or fearful of rejection. But that essential information will lie dead on the cutting room floor because it doesn’t match the projected screenplay.
There is a terrible toll to pay for this behavior, a Coupledom toll. The climate of trust so essential to a well-functioning Coupledom, is threatened by the projective behavior. If you repeatedly express doubt that your partner is being truthful with you, then your partner will inevitably come up with a survival strategy to protect against the insult to their integrity, the repeated “character assassination,” the dismissive attitude. They will become guarded, less sharing, more distancing, maybe withholding. Interactions are no longer spontaneous; they become more calculated. It must be remembered that The Coupledom is a tapestry of connection and the weave is held together by threads of trust in each other’s love and mutual respect. When those threads begin to split, the weave weakens, then the frayed fabric becomes susceptible to tears. And tears.
To be clear, not all assumptions are projection based. When a spouse explains their reason for an action with, “I assume that’s what you wanted me to do,” and their partner has a look of disbelief and says, “Why would you assume that?” then we might consider that we are in the arena of projection. But not necessarily. How do we make that distinction? Healthy assumptions are based on factual observation – a partner’s pattern of behavior viewed over time. “I ordered the steak for you as they didn’t have the salmon and I assumed since you don’t like cod, that you’d prefer the steak.” That “assumption” is based on actual data, the data of multiple shared meals. “Well, you were wrong this time. I’d actually have preferred the cod to the steak.” Okay, but you can’t read someone’s mind. In fact, it is necessary to draw from past experience in order to make informed choices in the present. Of course it is best to double check with someone, but that is not always possible. The waiter was waiting and your partner is stuck in traffic and you have an 8P.M. curtain at the theater down the street. It is also important to note that no one should be expected to read minds, anyone’s mind – cod/steak/salmon or otherwise, no matter how much they love you or know you. Affection cannot be measured by how well your partner mind reads. In fact, we can’t “read” someone’s mind. We can intuit well; we can be terrific observers; but we as a species are not mind readers.
I have heard many a wounded spouse sputter, “After all these years and you still don’t know me.” Well we do and we don’t. So we rely on data. Some few may have a gift that resembles mind reading. But rule of thumb: don’t count on your mindreading abilities, or your partner’s. They are more likely projection.
Which brings me to an essential point. If you think or assume that you know what your spouse is thinking or why they behave in a certain way, unless you ask them if that is so, you are enabling a process that can be disastrous to your relationship. Couples who (unwittingly) impose their projective thinking onto their partners, considering them informed assumptions perhaps and then react to their own projections as truth, are going to make some pretty awful mistakes. They will choose to behave in accordance with their assumptions/projections, and their partner will witness an array of behaviors, statements, and accusations that don’t make sense and can be deeply alienating and dismissive.
Often, when we refuse to consider a spouse’s explanation, we set in motion a corrosive process that inflicts hurt, bewilderment, feelings of powerlessness and loss of integrity with flashes of historic pain. Who in their childhood hasn’t felt that they are not being heard? Over time love gets buried under the pain. Then, watch out as the projections may come true. “You don’t love me anymore.” “Well, now that you mention it, you have hurt me so much, insulted me, accused me of lying and being an uncaring person, that loving you just became too painful. I built up a wall. Now I don’t know how to take it down.” Ouch!
An affair or deception that is factually discovered by a spouse may create havoc in the Coupledom for years to come. Trust that is critically broken is a challenge to rebuild, but folks do it. The longer the deception, the more difficult the repair. That is why when confronted by your partner, it is best to confess. Repeated deceits inflict further damage each time and lengthen the recovery time. Despite a clean slate of behavior going forward, any data or behavior that hints at a pattern even remotely similar to the time of the affair, will challenge the progress in rebuilding trust. At that moment, the partner who betrayed will have to be patient and factually specific to prove that they are once again trustworthy.
Other types of deceptions seen in my office are financial in nature. For example, one member of the Coupledom takes out a second mortgage on their home without first consulting their spouse; or someone transfers money out of a savings, retirement or brokerage account to help a relative or pay off a gambling debt; support a drug habit; cover a shortfall in a business venture, and so on. Often these behaviors are borne out of shame and embarrassment at failing at a job or a business. The decision not to bring the spouse in on the problem may be symptomatic of a frailty in the marriage or in the character or self-esteem of the individual. Whatever the underpinnings of these behaviors, the threads of trust are weakened and future ambiguities or behaviors will require a great deal of factual data to reassure a spouse that no, I am not doing that again. That is when the possibility of making assumptions/projections needs to be crosschecked carefully with present reality. And a spouse who triggered the past trauma needs to be on board to help their partner separate the current truth from the fear born out of past broken trust. Usually, a professional needs to be part of this process to prevent incurring more damage.
But when no previous betrayal or deception or actual rejection or abandonment has occurred, then the accusatory spouse needs to delve into the source of their assumptions/projections introspectively. Low self-esteem, conflicting emotions, recent losses or setbacks can trigger projective behaviors and heighten insecurities or the emotions from family-of-origin trauma. Ultimately, disbelieving a spouse without evidence will weaken the bonds of trust and corrode the weave that holds the tapestry of The Coupledom together.
Being willing to consider your spouse’s reasons for any behavior is the first and most important step in making sure that assumptions and projections don’t corrode your Coupledom’s fabric of trust.
Check out your own stuff carefully. We have access to only one mind, our own. When we operate as if we can access two – well now that’s science fiction. Perhaps you can fly as well. Safe landing!!!
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2017