Marital Mind Reading



Sensing what others might be thinking or feeling is a good social skill. But believing we know for sure what another person thinks, feels, wants, or needs is dangerous.

Four examples of mind reading.

1) If your spouse is silent and you say, “You’re mad at me!” that’s mind reading.

2) If your spouse is late getting home and you say, “You’re cheating on me!” that’s mind reading.

3) If your partner forgets to buy milk and you say, “You did that on purpose!” that’s mind reading.

4) If your partner cleans the kitchen and you say, “You don’t think I’m capable of doing this myself!” that’s mind reading.

Two factors that fuel this bad habit.

1) anxiety.

2) depression.

Two ways to look at this phenomenon:

1) negative mind reading leads to anxiety and depression. Who wouldn’t be depressed if we thought our spouse had such negative feelings, motives, or thoughts?

2) anxiety and depression lead to negative mind reading. Looking at our partner’s through a negative lens colors everything negatively.

Two things make this habit highly vexing.

1) the tendency for the mind reader to conjure up negative motives, negative thoughts, or negative intent in their spouse.

2) the tendency for the mind reader to believe they are absolutely, 100% correct.

Two reasons counselors find breaking clients of this habit very difficult.

1) Nobody likes to be told their beliefs might be wrong. The mind reading client then reads the mind of the therapist, “He’s minimizing my fears,” “He just doesn’t get it.” “He’s a jerk.” “He doesn’t know my spouse as well as I do. I KNOW I’m right!!”

2) If the spouse is not guilty as charged this means the mind reader has issues to work on. It’s much easier to blame others for our unhappiness.

Two ways to get out of this dysfunctional pattern.

1) drive each other so crazy with false accusations, negative spins, and erroneous mind reading that one of you leaves. You can’t mind read if there’s no mind around to read.

2) Get so fed up with poor communication that one of you admits, “My interpretation might be wrong.”

Two ancient Proverbs on this topic.

1) “Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them.”

2) “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil.”

Four practical things a mind reader can do to break this habit.

1) Check the accuracy of your speculations, “I have a feeling you’re mad. Am I right?” If they say no, believe them.

2) Get in the habit of coming up with alternative explanations why your spouse does what they do. “He’s silent because he’s problem solving.” “She cleaned the kitchen because it was messy.” “He was late for dinner because of traffic.” “She forgot the milk because the kids were distracting.”

3) Look inside yourself and see if mind reading is a subconscious plot to provoke your spouse, reinforce negative self esteem, feed your anxiety monster, or conjure certainties in a world of uncertainty.

4) Look at the lens through which you look at life. If it’s negative, change it. If we can’t change our spouse we can change our view of our spouse.


Annoyances in Marriage, Pt. 3 (and a free book!)

Managing Marital Irritations.cover

Glynn Wolfe might win the prize for history’s most irritable husband. According to his daughter in law, Vikki Wolfe, Glynn left his wife because she ate sunflower seeds in bed. But wait, there’s more. Wolfe divorced another wife for using his toothbrush. But wait, there’s still more. Wolfe is famous for being a wife collector. All counted, he married and divorced a total of 29 wives. Click here for his bizarre story. I’m not sure who needed counseling more, him or his 29 wives!

If you’ve asked your partner to quit eating sunflower seeds in bed or using your toothbrush and they refuse you can do like Wolfe did and file for divorce.

Or, you can become more tolerant of your partner’s irritating mannerisms. If you can’t change your partner, change yourself. Here are some tips.

1. List the things your partner does that irritate you.

2. Ask them to list the things you do that irritate them.

3. Compare lists and negotiate. “I’ll put down the toilet seat if you stay within our budget.”

4. Don’t give your partner negative labels. If you’re convinced your partner is a “self absorbed, cheating, immature, lying, slob” you’ll look for evidence to back up the label…and of course you’ll find it.

5. Re-examine the stories you tell yourself about your partner’s bad habits. Our interpretations play a bigger role in our frustrations than our partner’s behaviors. “As a man or woman thinks, so are they.” Here are some common stories that deserve challenging.

  • “My partner irritates me on purpose.” This might not be true. They could be mindless, automatic behaviors. Don’t you ever do things without thinking? Give grace and the benefit of the doubt.
  • “I take this personally!” If we treat their actions as a sign they don’t care about us, isn’t prioritizing us, or doesn’t love us, we’ve turned a benign action (like how to load a dishwasher) into a moral issue.
  • “If you really loved me you’d stop driving me crazy with all your irritating habits.” To which your partner could answer, “If you really loved me you’d let me do what I do without nagging.”
  • “They should know what I like. I don’t need to tell them.” Maybe it never occurred to your partner that it bothers you. They aren’t mind readers.
  • “My partner is one big irritation.” Is that their only redeeming trait? Won’t you miss that irritating habit once they’re gone? If the marriage is that dysfunctional there are bigger problems than crumbs on the counter or leaving wet towels on the floor.
  • “They don’t respect me.” Maybe they do respect you but just don’t have the same passion for when dishes get washed, bills get paid, or floors get vacuumed. They could just as easily say you don’t respect their way of doing things.
  • “If they don’t load the dishwasher right I’ll leave!” That’s why divorce attorneys call marriage a three ring circus–engagement ring, wedding ring, and suffering.
  • “Reasoning hasn’t worked. Time to explode!” Two wrongs don’t make a right.
  • “I’ll fight fire with fire! If they don’t take out the trash, I won’t talk!” Welcome to the walled off marriage. Hard to be close to someone you punish with silence.
  • “Any request my partner makes is an attempt to control me.” Really? Where did you learn that? From a demanding parent, grandparent, or ex?
  • “Differences are not allowed in this relationship!” Um, oneness does not mean sameness.

Click here Managing Marital Irritations.1 for a free book, Managing Marital Irritations. (This book contains Bible references).

Thesaurus Therapy: Confuse These Words At Your Own Risk

Collegiate_ThesaurusHere’s a list of important words with very different meanings. We fail to grasp these distinctions to our peril. 

Cause vs. Contribution. A partner or family member may contribute to our irritation, anger, frustration, or unhappiness, but they do not cause it. There’s a fine line between what others do and how it affects us.  It’s what goes on inside our minds, not what goes on “out there,” that determines how annoying or troublesome another’s behavior feels. This is good news because we can control our inner world more easily than controlling others. Application: replace the comment, “You make me so mad,” with, “The story I tell myself about what you did makes me so mad.”

Criticism vs. Complaint. As a family conflict mediator I encourage complaining. It’s a healthy way to make our wishes known, initiate helpful dialog, and foster positive change. But there’s a world of difference between saying, “I feel bugged when you leave your dirty socks on the floor,” and “You are a slob and a sorry excuse for a human being.” One is a complaint, the other is a criticism. Application: resist the temptation to attack your partner; attack the problem instead.

Reacting vs. Responding. If you throw a rock into a pond you’ll see waves. That’s a response. If you throw a rock into a pond and see see a tsunami, that’s a reaction. Too often we react like a tsunami when a family member bugs us. Those reactions are impulsive, thoughtless, and explosive.  A response involves taking a deep breath, becoming curious about what the other person is thinking, and giving a soft reply. Application: be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.

Oneness vs. Sameness. When “two become one” it doesn’t mean “two become the same.” Expecting our partners to think, act, talk, eat, and relax just like us is to overlook the fact that we are one (shared bed, kids, budget, goals) but not the same (emotionally enmeshed, codependent, and blurred boundaries). Marriage is not the melting of a blue and yellow crayon into a green blob. We are still blue and yellow. Application:  give your partner and yourself permission to be different.  See The Green Marriage

Assertiveness vs. Confrontation. The conflict avoidant person will cower at both of these words. But if the thought of being a perpetually passive, compliant, floor mat doesn’t appeal to us we should embrace assertiveness (the ability to say what we want and not want, ask questions, make our needs known) and eliminate confrontations (pulling the pin on a hand grenade and throwing it at our partner). Application: speak the truth in love. 


What is Premarital Counseling?


Engaged couples were some of my favorite customers when I was drawing caricatures at fairs and festivals.

In 2006 a high school student interviewed me for a paper she was writing about my services as a premarital counselor. Here are my answers.

 1. How long have you been working in the counseling field and specifically working with couples in premarital counseling?

33 years (23 in churches, 10 as full time marriage and family therapist/conflict mediator).

 2. Can you provide (a few) important specifics about your program? e.g. length of the program or requirements before marriage?

Participation is voluntary so there are no set requirements. Couples typically meet for 6 sessions during which time we look at the results of the on line inventory they took individually (Prepare-Enrich). Some couples come 3 times, others find it so helpful they come ten or more times. Some make it a 6 month ritual to come in after getting married for a tune up. Blending lives is challenging and we’re happy to offer all the help couples need.

Another thing that distinguishes our program is that it’s built on several unique features—the things I’ve learned from couples for 3 decades, the things I’ve learned being married for 30 years, and the things I’ve learned from cutting edge research from people like Gottman, Wyle, Christiansen/Jacobson (among others).

3. Have you found any need to change your premarital counseling methods or workshops over the years and if so how have you adapted them?

Great question  Yes. When I started I rarely counseled cohabiting couples. Now non sexually active couples are the exception. I rarely did blended families. Now that’s a huge percentage of our work (second/third marriages).  I started in a church context where spirituality was taken for granted. Now I don’t assume any religious background.

4. How do you incorporate Christian beliefs and Biblical principles into premarital counseling?

Another great question. The inventory we use cited above evaluates 11 areas of a couple’s strengths and growth areas, spirituality being one of them.  Couples with significant differences in this area (as in all areas) find it helpful to discuss those differences and brainstorm ways to either reduce the differences or learn to live with them.  I respect those with little or no faith background.  If couples ask how my wife and I made it 30 years I then describe the spiritual basis of our lives/family.

5. Have you ever experienced or given premarital counseling not from a Christian perspective?

I am a champion of marital monogamy, fidelity, and equality which are spin offs of my Christian faith. So in that sense, all my counseling is inspired by or informed by historic Christian values.  I have had Hindu, atheist, fundamentalist, RCC, and Protestant clients….they hire me to coach them on how be happily married for a long time so they learn from me the principles/strategies that increase the odds of a long term marriage, although they may not realize those principles are inspired by the Christian faith.  I’m not “preachy,” if that makes any sense.

6. Given that Catholic churches and some protestant ministers require premarital counseling, how do you think participation would be effected it was not required?

I think it’s a good thing that many churches require premarital counseling before performing a ceremony. Statistics suggest those who spend a bunch of hours prior to the ceremony talking about the challenges of marriage fare better than those who do Vegas style weddings. I’m not sure my clientele would decrease since if couples look hard enough they could find someone to do the ceremony without requiring premarital counseling. This is an investment many couples are eager to make.

7. Do you feel that premarital counseling of some form should be required before any marriage (including secular non-religious marriages)?

The oft cited anecdote is: it’s easier to get married than it is to get a driver’s license……and the ramifications of healthy/unhealthy marriages are far more life changing than driving a car. So, yes, given the social/emotional wear and tear of divorce, I’m a strong advocate for requirements.

7a. if so, how do you think it would be appropriate to communicate this requirement to those who are not seeking a religious ceremony?

I’d pitch such requirements to a secular audience the same way doctors pitch diet and exercise. Regardless of your spiritual orientation, avoiding junk food is good for you. Likewise, stable, monogamous marriages are good for couples. I also do divorce mediation,  helping couples work out property division and parenting plans. It’s agony to see the anger, bitterness, and acrimony. Visiting a divorce court would create a great incentive for doing all one can prior to getting married to avoid a dissolution.

8. Most of the literature states that premarital counseling overall helps with better communication and more positive relations in marriage, would you agree or disagree with these findings?

I agree totally.

9. Do you think premarital counseling lowers the risk of divorce or distress in marriage?

Premarital counseling lowers the risk of divorce but NOT (in my opinion) marital distress. Distress will happen. People change, the glow of romance fades, stress happens (job loss, money problems, kids, illness, irritations). The things that draw one person to another often end up driving that person crazy. “I used to love his spontaneity, now his haphazard life drives me crazy.” “I used to love her ambition and hard working character; now she can’t rest and I’m pooped.” Premarital counseling won’t prevent these things from happening but will give tools to couples to know what to do when (not if) they occur.

One of the primary messages of premarital counseling is, “When the poop hits the fan, don’t panic. It happens to all of us.” In that sense, premarital counselors normalize the challenges. Most couples have an idealistic and distorted view of how blissful life will be but when his hobbies irritate her or her family irritates him they accept it as normal and it reduces the temptation to bail. As you know, the statistics are abysmal for long term relationships.

10. (Personal Experience) Did you go through premarital counseling before you got married?


10a. if so, do the values and practices from premarital counseling still exist in your life today?

Yes. Even though we had premarital counseling in 1976 (during the Carter administration!) the ideas we learned there have served us well through job changes, financial stress, kids, illness, irritations, etc. By the way, did you write these Qs? If so, good job! You’re on your way to being an excellent researcher. Hope this helped. If I can be of further assistance, please ask.


A Man’s Guide to Sitting in a Counselor’s Office

It’s been my experience that women enjoy the counseling process more than men. Guys often feel out of place, freaked out at the thought of talking to a stranger, and wary about getting ganged up on. “I don’t need anybody telling me how to live,” is the frequent complaint. While some men eagerly welcome a neutral coach giving both parties pointers on increasing joy in their marriage, many would rather be poked in the eye with a sharp stick. Many guys enter my office like Indiana Jones waiting for a rock to crush them.

To help dispel the fear of counseling here’s what typically happens.

Your wife calls and sets up the appointment. You agree to go because you don’t want to fight and she threatened to divorce you if you don’t.

You arrive in the waiting room a few minutes early to fill in some paper work (name, phone number, medical problems I should know about, names and ages of your kids).

I enter the waiting room and we introduce ourselves. You and your spouse enter my office and sit in comfy chairs from Ikea.

I ask if you have any questions about the paper work and I remind you that what we talk about is confidential with only a few exceptions. I then ask, “How can I help?”

You say, “She dragged me in here; let her answer.”

She then describes her concerns while I take notes.

When she’s done I ask you, “How can I help?” Many guys use this opportunity to express their concerns, complaints, needs, frustrations, and anger with eye rolling and a grunt.

As we talk I’m trying to figure out some things:

  •         what relationship skills are lacking?
  •         how volatile is the relationship?
  •         is the anger so high I need to hide the sharp objects?

By the end of the session if I think I can help I’ll invite each party to return alone for a private session so I can learn more. After those two sessions are done the three of us meet to work on goals, build relationship skills, and create a safe environment where issues can be addressed. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about childhood issues unless there are personal pains to work through. Instead, we talk about the future and what will make it better. I’m eager to get the best results in as short amount of time as possible. If after six one hour sessions we’re not making progress we reevaluate our goals and my role as coach.

A good marriage counselor creates a level playing field, doesn’t take sides, and helps the couple communicate so they can resolve their problems on their own. I’m like training wheels on a bike; useful while learning but eventually removed.

In the spirit of full disclosure, here are the most common skills couples need help with.

I help clients describe and put into words their feelings. Bottling stuff up inhibits healthy relationships.

We explore distorted beliefs that trip us up. Jumping to conclusions, anger, defensiveness, mind reading, and conflict avoidance are usually the result of “stinkin’ thinkin’.”

We discuss ineffective attempts to avoid troubling experiences—drinking, gambling, porn, drugs, TV addiction, sloth, affairs, fantasies, or computer games. These solutions have become the problem! It takes more than will power to eliminate bad habits. We look at the underlying pain that feeds these escape plans.

We look for patterns, those “here we go again” moments where dysfunctional roles are played out, where actions lead inexorably to reactions.

We discuss the difficult task all married folks face: how to balance “I” with “We.” If I were to name the number one cause for unhappiness in a marriage this would be the culprit—feeling smothered or abandoned. We focus on the skills necessary to be both an individual and a partner.

We address the mine field of contribution in marital discord. The partner who blames their mate while denying any personal role in the marriage conflict is living dangerously. As Carol Tavris has written, “Self justification is the prime suspect in the death of a marriage.”

These are the subjects most couples need for a marital tune up. There’s no judging, no ganging up, no telling anybody how to live. I simply help couples see the dilemmas they’re facing and suggest pointers on how to resolve them.

And no rolling rocks. I promise.