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Misreading Your Spouse

Misreading Your Spouse - Illustration of a couple looking at different shadows of themselves.
Hao Hao
How false assumptions may be hurting your marriage

My husband and I were sitting on the porch chatting about future plans. I mentioned an idea to him, and he started asking questions. Lots and lots of questions. He also mentioned being nervous about some things I suggested. I immediately concluded that he was closed to the idea, and I told him to just drop it. But I’m glad he didn’t, because I soon realized that I had made some wrong assumptions. I was misreading my spouse. 

When Mark expresses apprehension about my ideas or suggestions, I too easily conclude that he’s unwilling to do something new. But what he’s really doing is processing his thoughts and feelings externally. He’s not saying he’s unwilling to do something new; he just needs to talk through it. As an internal processor, I don’t usually do that. And because of our processing differences, I tend to assign the wrong meaning to his responses and jump to the wrong conclusions.

Each of us sees the world through the lens of our own experiences, history, temperament, personality and family of origin. We interpret our spouses’ words and body language through those lenses as well.

The problem is that we tend to misread, misinterpret or misunderstand what our spouses say or do. We may take things personally and become offended when, more often than not, we misinterpreted what they meant. Wrong assumptions and mistaken perceptions can increase the conflict in our marriages and lead to arguments that damage our relationships. 

So how can we curb the tendency to take things the wrong way? Let’s explore some practical ways we can stop wrong assumptions in their tracks.

Pay attention to perceptions

One important way we can correct wrong assumptions is by paying attention to our thoughts and perceptions. Whenever you catch yourself making an assumption about something your spouse says or does, ask yourself, Is this perception accurate?

For many years of our marriage, I rarely expressed emotion or processed grief. This had everything to do with learning to avoid emotions in my family of origin, but Mark took it to mean that I didn’t need him. Instead of understanding that my lack of vulnerability reflected my childhood experiences, he interpreted it as rejecting him. 

One friend shared with me that she often misread her husband’s quietness as anger. When she dug into this perception with a counselor, she began to understand that when she was young and her stepdad was quiet, it usually meant that he was angry with her. When she married, she automatically assigned the same meaning to her husband’s silence. There was only one problem: Her husband was simply a quiet guy.

Resist making assumptions

Over the course of our marriage, Mark and I have learned to resist making assumptions about each other. Here are three strategies we’ve found helpful in order to avoid misreading your spouse.

Be aware of the lenses you see life through. Our perspectives can be accurate at times and terribly distorted at other times. Think about the experiences you’ve had that shaped the way you see life. Some common lenses are fear, loss, rejection, shame, hopelessness, avoidance, people pleasing, resignation and anger. As you process your spouse’s actions or words, ask yourself, What lens am I viewing this through?

Ask what you’re thinking. When Mark expresses concerns about my ideas, instead of making assumptions, I can bring my thoughts out of the shadows and ask questions to clarify what he means. For example, I might say, “You’re expressing fear about doing this. Are you saying you don’t want to do it, or are you just processing your thoughts and feelings?”

My friend with the quiet husband might say to him, “When I was a child and my stepdad got quiet, he was usually angry with me. I notice you’re quiet today. Does that mean you’re angry with me?”

Push your thoughts in a more accurate direction. Our thoughts are powerful, and they can mislead us in powerfully destructive ways. That’s why we need to “take every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5). When you find yourself making wrong assumptions, pause before reacting and work to recognize how your own lens is distorting your view of the situation.

Using these strategies can help you let go of assumptions and focus instead on what your spouse is actually thinking, feeling and intending to communicate. Don’t let wrong assumptions make your path rocky. Instead, clear up any false expectations and misunderstandings for a more pleasant future together.

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