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.


What Builders, Boomers, Millennials, and Gen-Y Have In Common

generation boy


Point and click just about anywhere on the web and you’ll find an article about the animosities, antagonisms, or incompatibilities of people of different ages. People born in the 1930s and 1940s see life differently than those born in the 1950s and 1960s who see life differently than those born in the 1970s and 1980s who see life differently than those born in the 1990s and 2000s. Rather than rehash all the ways people of varying generations see life differently here’s a list of what people of all ages have in common.

We all like feeling good. While our activities, foods, clothing styles and entertainments differ, we all share the pursuit of happiness.

We all like avoiding pain. There are very few locations where generations mingle. The exception is for medical needs: Emergency Rooms, doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms, and hospitals. Age differences vanish when it comes to toothaches, broken bones, or appendicitis.

We all want to be “liked.” Teens count their Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and Instagram “likes,” and elderly shut-ins count the number of visits they get. Even scoundrels, criminals, and cads prefer negative attention to no attention.

We all want meaningful lives. What fuels the pursuit of religion, science, hobbies, sports, work, money, or fame? A desire to feel like our lives matter.  People have different pathways to meaning but the motive is same: an aversion to obscurity, futility, and wasted lives.

We all want kindness, respect, love, affirmation. My clients range from 12 to 80. What they have in common is an aversion to conflict and a desire to create healthy relationships.

We all love air. Artists, novelists, poets, musicians, film makers, and marketers want to create content that will be the next “big thing,” smash hit, or viral Youtube video. But in reality the only thing humanity universally embraces is breathing. This being the case it makes more sense to  view younger and older generations as fellow passengers on space ship earth rather than aliens.

“Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.” George Orwell

“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.” Henry David Thoreau

“Rather than seeing different generations as square pegs in round holes let’s enlarge the hole.” Erik Johnson


Challenging Negative Thoughts When Things Go Bad

blackboardHere’s a handy truth to keep in mind the next time things don’t end well. The end of an experience does not define the beginning and middle of an experience.
If on day fourteen of a two week vacation we lose our luggage, it rains cats and dogs, and we run into grouchy people it doesn’t mean the whole vacation was crummy. And yet we’re prone to think the whole vacation was a disaster even if the first thirteen days were great. 
If we enjoy 40 minutes of musical bliss listening to a vinyl record but the last minute has a scratch on it, we tend to think, “The whole record was ruinied!” conveniently overlooking the first 39 minutes of pure enjoyment.
If a pregnancy goes well but the delivery is hard mommies tend to treat the whole pregnancy as an ordeal (so I hear).
If the last years of a long and fruitful life end in a depressing nursing home it doesn’t mean that person’s whole life was depressing. Yet we are prone to equate how a life ends with how it was lived in the beginning and middle.
If a 400 page novel engages, inspires, entertains, and delights but has a crummy ending we tend to forget the 399 pages of enjoyment.
If a long term marriage ends in a painful divorce people tend to think their whole marriage was bad, forgetting the fun times in the beginning and middle.
Our tendency to let a bad ending color the beginning and middle of a good experience seems unavoidable, doesn’t it? 
But try it out. See if you can catch yourself letting a bad end define the whole thing. 
  • Don’t let a bad dessert erase the memory of a great dinner.
  • Don’t let your teenager’s surliness erase the good memories of that first step, first word, first day of school.
  • Don’t let a repair bill when something breaks erase all the years that stove, car, tent, bike, computer, or lawnmower worked great.
It will be hard at first but by learning to resist letting an unpleasant end of an experience define the whole experience we’ll have happier memories, less discouragement, and greater control over a mind that’s prone to negativity. 

Have You Ever Been Annoyed By a Family Member?

Built into the human body is an aversion to irritation. Scraping a fingernail on a black board makes our ears hurt, rancid tastes make us gag, pop up ads offend us, drippy faucets unnerve us, advertising jingles become ear worms and make us crazy, and pesky mosquitoes can drive us bonkers.

There are four ways to cope physical annoyances. For example, to minimize the irritation we feel when cutting onions we can either:

tupperwareQuarantine the onion by putting it in Tupperware

Insulate our eyes by putting on a gas mask


Let nature take its course and flush out irritating onion odors with cleansing tears


Re-frame the irritation by telling ourselves a new story.

“This is the price I pay for adding flavor to omelets.”

“My tears may mean I’m using too many onions in this dish.”

“Onions boost my acting career by giving me authentic tears for my stage performance.”

“Onion odors are natural, unavoidable, and an irreversible part of the universe.”

As a family conflict mediator it’s my privilege to coach couples, parents, and teens on ways to reduce family irritations. Just as there are four ways to cope with physical irritations, there are four ways to cope with psychological, relational, and family irritations.

Quarantine the irritating family member—put ‘em in a time out.

Insulate yourself by leaving the room (better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome family member, Proverbs 21:9).

Let nature take its course and process your irritation with cleansing tears.

Re-frame the irritation by telling yourself a new story.

“Irritation is the price I pay for living under the same roof with my family.”

“Irritations motivate me to develop patience, kindness, and tolerance.”

“My irritability alerts me to the possibility that I may be irritating to others.”

“Relationship irritations are natural, unavoidable, and an irreversible part of the universe.”

Please do not retaliate by returning irritation for irritation. This only causes things to escalate. Unless of course you’d like to come in for family counseling. I do have openings.

A Reframing Approach to Chronic Illness

In ways I don’t fully understand, those who frame pain as spiritual, meaningful, redemptive, or even a divine mystery seem to fare better than those who consider pain mere biology. While I have only anecdotal proof of this, reframing pain in a well-chosen narrative, often called a, “metaphoric approach to pain management,” apparently unleashes some sort of analgesic that ameliorates pain in some … at least a little.

My wish to banish other’s pain entirely is futile–I’m neither doctor, magician, or faith healer. But some sufferers of chronic pain have found the reframing approach helpful and I’m happy to describe it as best I can so others may benefit. Here are the popular frames that have alleviated pain in some.

1. “I suffer from an illness, not merely a disease.” According to this definition a disease is biological and pathological. An illness however is philosophical and subject to interpretation. Disease is a mechanistic sensation, a function of nerve endings. Illness is a story we tell ourselves about pain. An analogy: water boils on my stove because the burner is 212° Fahrenheit. But it also boils on my stove because I want a cup of tea. The scientific cause alone isn’t sufficient to explain why the water is boiling. We need the philosophical cause, too. So too with pain. We need more than just an explanation for the biomechanics of disease. We need a narrative explanation for illness, too.

2. “The meaning of pain changes the pain itself.” Many people endure pain voluntarily because it means something: the pain of cutting means emotional relief, the pain of martyrdom means reward in heaven, the pain of getting a tattoo means looking cool, the pain of childbirth means she gets a baby, the pain of open heart surgery means he gets a new life-saving valve, blisters and muscle ache means a marathoner will finish the race, austerity/asceticism/fasting means advancing spiritual goals, the teenager who walks to school in winter without a coat means he’s tough, elective cosmetic surgery means increased beauty, boot camp means “weakness is leaving the body.” Those who attach meaning to their elective pain endure it better than those who see pain as pointless. Sufferers of chronic pain who attach new meaning to their suffering experience, so I’m told, greater resiliency.

3. “Faith makes pain a bit more manageable.” I never met anyone who refused medical help in favor of mere faith (though we read horror stories once in a while of parents who deny children proper medical treatment). But those who’ve found western and alternative medicine wanting have added these frames: “God allowed this for a purpose,” “I’m being tested,” “I’m following in the footsteps of my Savior who suffered,” “This cross [thorn, whirlwind, snare, trap, pit, net] is going to accomplish something good,” “I’m going to be a better person when this is all over,” “I’m storing up rewards in heaven,” “Chronic pain reminds me I’m a child of Adam battling unholy desires,” “In this world we’ll have tribulation,” and “Oh God give me the grace to get through this hell.” How does it work: placebo, miracle, trance? I don’t know.

4. “Pain is part of some bigger meaning.” Narrative therapy means we tell ourselves stories about our lot in life. If the story is, “My pain is a horrific joke played by a cruel and indifferent universe,” we’ll experience certain feelings. But if that story is, “Pain is a part of God’s plan,” we will (so I’ve been told) experience different feelings. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “The contemplation of divine things suffices to reduce bodily pain.”

5. “Shared sorrow is half the sorrow” (the corollary being, “Shared joy is twice the joy”). I don’t have hard data to prove this but it seems to me those who have an understanding and supportive mate, family member, doctor, or friend who loves the sufferer fares better than those who suffer alone. Is empathy analgesic?

If my 30+ years of pastoral and therapeutic observations mean anything, it appears to me that those who obsess over pain, avoid pain, reject pain, resent pain, and fight pain suffer more than those who face pain, accept pain, and resign their pain to divine providence. I know this approach isn’t ideal; I wish I could make others’ pain go away. But if the reports of the heroes I’ve met count, giving a religious meaning to pain helps.