Updated: Jul 11, 2022
We are constantly making predictions. All the time. Psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett in her book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life Of The Brain, explains how our brains, to be able to respond quickly to situations need to make predictions before it happens. She gives an example of catching a ball. Based on your previous experience on catching a ball, your brain makes judgements on which direction the ball will go in and where it will land for you to be able to catch it. Reacting after the fact would be too late.
So how does this relate to assumptions in relationships? And why is it important?
We have created our idea of the world and our view based on our past experiences. I want to use an example here to give it a little more context. One that most of us can understand and possibly not feel so charged by.
For example, someone who has had dogs all their life and various breeds, sees one bouncing towards them and will likely look to interact with the dog in a fun, playful and loving way. Another person who say for example was bitten as a child, will see the dog bouncing towards them and see danger, the risk of being attacked, jumped on or knocked down. Their fight/flight response takes over.
Both humans reacting according to their previous experience. The brain making a prediction based on previous experiences.
What about the dog?
The dog, seeing the excitement of the first person is likely to continue over with enthusiasm and being met with lots of love, will likely lick and welcome cuddles and a scratch.
With the second person, sensing the tension; smelling the alarm pheromones released in body odour; the body language will likely be defensive; if speaking the tone of voice changes; heart beat changes; and pupils dilate, the dog sensing this, responds expecting danger. Not understanding if the human is the source of the danger or if the human sees a danger the dog doesn’t, how the dog reacts next will therefore depend on its own experience in the past with humans in a state of fight/flight. It could react from curiosity, fear, defensive behaviour, aggression, a myriad of possibilities depending on the dog’s own past experiences. The dog can become more ‘unpredictable’. Which in turn feeds into the second person’s assumption of dogs, increasing the chances of that assumption manifesting in how the person expected - that dogs are dangerous.
The dog also based on the human’s reaction may also adapt its behaviour of future encounters in a way which is reflective of this particular experience, reinforcing or creating a new mode of behaviour for the future in similar circumstances.
And in a way, all of this can happen with our partners too.
In relation to our interaction with partners, what can happen is when we first get together we can make assumptions based on our experiences as children growing up and also how we were treated in past relationships. So in our current relationship we can create stories about the intentions of our current partner. Which may or may not be true. To understand more about how our childhood can influence our current patterns in relationships I invite you to read Unclear Expectations? Expect Disappointment, From Anxious Attachment To Secure and Avoiding Intimacy? Avoidant Attachment.
So we head into a completely new relationship expecting them to treat us in the same way as other people have done. As a result, what that means is our behaviour then begins to reflect that expected behaviour and lo and behold, our partner begins acting in the way we expected. A little like the dog scenario above. The reason being is we likely go into defensive mode, maybe we attack back (as we are assuming an attack), possibly we shut down, or storm off… and these reactions will be simultaneously feeding into your partner’s assumptions of your behaviour and triggering in them the stories that they hold about themselves. And there you are. In a loop. Stuck there forever until…
Until you communicate. And just simply ask them! One of the biggest breakthroughs my clients have when looking to improve their relationship (and as a consequence their sex life), is their ability to communicate with their partner. Instead of making assumptions and taking what they see as a personal attack, it’s an opportunity to learn about them and to build a better relationship.
So the invitation is to remove the assumption of their intention, I invite my client to actually ask their partner what is going on. Some questions could be:
What does this mean for you?
How do you feel about this?
I sense that you are not happy about this, would you like to talk about it?
I would like to understand better what it is about this that you are experiencing discomfort around?
Asking, listening to and understanding your partner means that you are not creating a story about what’s happening. You are not filling the gaps with your childhood wounds. You are giving the partner space to explain themselves. And in the process they feel listened to, validated and this in turn creates a deeper connection. Invite genuine curiosity to build connection and a deeper understanding of what makes them tick.
This approach gives them the opportunity too to make changes in how they respond to you. They are less likely to go into their own story because they feel and experience the connection, the curiosity, the trust, the vulnerability and the willingness to reach out. Their replies to their intentions will often surprise you too. As quite often their own intentions to situations come from their own woundings of ‘not feeling considered’, ‘not feeling loved’, ‘feeling misunderstood’, ‘not feeling appreciated,’ worried, or frightened about the relationship itself. The reasons for their intentions can be varied and those are some examples, but I’m very sure that if you asked, they would give you a reason which would enable them to feel seen and validated in their experience.
What happens is in this new dynamic, slowly, slowly, instead of reacting to each other we begin to open up more and have conversations around our feelings and our needs. We begin to listen more to our partner. We see their vulnerability and that they too are just as much wanting to reach out and feel loved, safe and have a sense of belonging. That they too are just the same deep down, they want the same things, it’s just, like you, they have been going about it in a less than helpful way.
Carla Crivaro is a trauma-informed and certified Sex, Love & Relationship Coach, she works with men and women internationally to reach their goals in delicious sex, profound love and authentic relationships. Carla helps men and women understand themselves and each other, sexually and relationally, in and out of the bedroom. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.