December 11, 2013

Assumptions Ruin Relationships.

“There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills.”

Gautama Buddha

I recently read a beautiful young adult novel called Eleanor and Park, one of the best descriptions of first love I have ever encountered. From first impressions to first tentative gestures it’s spot-on.

In one breathtakingly well-written scene Eleanor is wretched because Park sees her in her too-small gym uniform. Because she’s overweight, she just “knows” that he is horrified by her true fatness.

(Actually, Park is blown away by her soft, voluptuous beauty and can’t stop thinking about it).

I have done that kind of thing hundreds, if not thousands of times. All my life. I have made up such elaborate stories in my head about what some guy was thinking that I could not, had my very life depended on it, have reported accurately on what he actually said or did.

(And, although I usually try to be gender-neutral in discussing affairs of the heart, my extensive research and experience tell me that the whole Worst Case Assumption business is far more common in women than men. I think it has to do with being socialized to please others and to search for hidden agendas behind the clearest communications. I am willing to be corrected).

So your significant other tells you that he is going out with some people after work, and that you’re welcome to come, but you probably won’t have a great time.

What he means is this: you’re welcome to come, but you probably won’t have a great time.

What you hear is this: he doesn’t want to spend any time with you, he wants to get away from you by spending time with other people who are more fun, plus there’s somebody at work that he finds more attractive. If you are me, you continue spinning your story to the point where the relationship is doomed, and you start crying, eating ice cream out of the carton and watching Lifetime movies.

Based on absolutely no evidence and contrary to the available facts. Because the facts are that a person you presumably love and trust, or at least like a whole lot has given you some information about an upcoming event and indicated that it might not be enjoyable for you. Maybe they all talk shop all the time. Maybe the guys get drunk and make passes at waitresses. Maybe no one brings boyfriends or girlfriends. For whatever reason, he thinks it won’t be fun for you. That’s what you know and there is nothing alarming about those facts.

Of course there are situations in which suspicion is warranted—like you actually know that he wants “space,” or he has been honest about the fact that you aren’t exclusive and there’s someone from work that he finds interesting.

Maybe he’s lied to you in the past about going out with friends after work when he was actually hooking up with his ex-girlfriend. Only a heartless idiot would tell you not to feel bad about those situations (although this heartless idiot might tell you to let go and stop clinging to something that’s clearly never going to honor you or bring you joy).

I’m talking about the times when all you know is what you see and hear for yourself, and what you see and hear is a person who is telling you the truth.

There is no reality beyond that; anything else is just stuff you are making up in your head.

And when you embroider what you actually see with the odd threads of distrust and unresolved issues you carry in your brain, it’s painful for you, it’s hurtful to your partner and it often leads to difficult and totally avoidable conflict.

When he says “you’re welcome to come, but you probably won’t have a great time,” you can respond in a way that takes his statement at face value. You might say that you’ll take the risk and join him anyway, or that he’s probably right and you’d rather just go to Vinyasa Flow and meet him later for dinner.

If you’re making up stories, though, a rational answer is much tougher. You feel pain, which seems real although it has no basis in fact. You say things like “fine, if you don’t want me there I won’t go.” (Tell me you’ve never done that. I certainly have).

Then he feels like you’re being passive-aggressive, because you are. He feels attacked and misunderstood. Nothing good ever follows.

An assumption takes the plain, honest essence of reality and turns it into a barbed instrument of torture.

When I was in college, a friend started dating a tremendously nice guy, who was cute and shy and dissected her fetal pig for her because she couldn’t bear to do it. One night she saw him in the dining hall with an equally cute girl, and although he waved her over to sit with them, she assumed it was the end of everything, left her half-filled tray and fled to her room where she sobbed for hours.

When he came to the dorm to talk to her she insisted that we send him away, and for days she refused to speak to him because she already knew the worst and couldn’t bear to have it confirmed.

The cute girl was, of course, his little sister who was on campus to take part in a high school physics program. He’d forgotten to mention it, and by the time the truth was revealed, she had behaved so badly that it really was over. I never did that particular thing, but I can assure you that I destroyed more than one good thing because I could not stop my busy brain from running through the alternate scenarios, scenarios that were inevitable negative.

The solution for me was to stop making assumptions. When in doubt, I asked—the worst that could happen was that I would find out something I didn’t like, but which I probably needed to know.

But I learned to ask only once, to accept the answer as the truth, and to refuse to let my mind go into that dark and knotted place of doubt and analysis.

It’s hard work, still.


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 Editor: Catherine Monkman

 Photo: Jochen Spalding/Flickr

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