Are we supposed to know intuitively what our partner is feeling, wanting, thinking? Or are we supposed to tell each other explicitly? Yes, and yes. I’ve recently had interesting conversations with couples about the value of explicit communication versus “tuning in” to each other’s feelings, wants, needs. One partner wanted the other to voice more directly what they wanted: “I don’t like it when you expect me to read your mind!” The other partner responded, “By now you should know me well enough to know how I feel about things.” As I often do, I encouraged them to understand how they are both right.
Intuitive, empathetic sensitivity is very important and is part of what feels good about becoming intimate with others. We feel connected and loved when others are tuned in to us. As human beings we are actually very well equipped for this kind of “mind-reading.” When we observe others, special neurons in our brains, mirror neurons, create in us an experience that is an approximation of what the other is feeling. This is the neurological basis for empathy. And the more time we spend with particular people, especially our partners, the better we get at it.
Even so, it’s an approximation; it gets us in the ballpark. Many other factors specific to each individual, and to the moment, determine the nuances of our experience of their feelings. Also, there are many variations on what our partner will want in certain states. If I am sad, my partner may have a vague sense that I am upset, but they may not be able to tell if I am anxious, tired, or sad. And they may not know if this is a moment for a hug or a cup of tea. Additionally, life being what it is, our partner may often be pre-occupied with other things, or themselves in some state that makes them less attuned.
For the fullest understanding our intuitive awareness must be combined with explicit communication. And this combination, over time, helps us fine-tune our intuitive understanding. Receiving explicit information about what certain “vibes” mean, helps us to make better guesses about each other’s experience. By combining intuitive understanding with explicit communication, we become increasingly more connected and skillful in meeting each other’s needs.