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Can You Read Your Partner's Moods?

A communication exercise for couples.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

Many intimate partners believe they can accurately read the other’s moods. Most of the time they actually can, but not always. Even long-term committed couples who think they know each other well don’t always guess right, especially in the interpretation of nonverbal cues in emotionally laden areas.

To add to the potential confusion, many people give conflicting messages between their nonverbal cues and the phrases that accompany them. These “double messages” are sometimes innocent, but sometimes intended. A smile, for instance, accompanied by a challenging message can be interpreted either as playful or a cover-up to a more serious communication. Or, a sudden turn away might be meant as a distress signal but could be a need to go inward before responding.

In the four decades I’ve been a relationship therapist, I’ve experimented with many different ways to help couples get better at reading each other’s signals to become more accurate at discerning what is truly going on. The following exercise is not only effective but also fun for most couples.

There are six simple steps:

Step One: Paring Down

If you are like most other couples, you do “get” each other’s silent signals in most situations. But you are more likely to get things wrong in those areas that have been problematic in the past. These repeated misconceptions are your targets in this exercise.

Begin by writing down which areas of the relationship you have repeatedly guessed wrong about your partner’s moods. The areas each of you choose may be the same or different. Once you’ve written them down, pick three on each list that have been consistently problematic. You may want to assign each a name to help differentiate them from each other.

Here are some examples of typical areas of misunderstanding:

  • Different levels of sexual desire

  • Physical exhaustion

  • Pre-occupation with something unrelated to the relationship

  • Unresolved arguments still hanging around

  • Cumulative frustrations

  • Emotional upset states like depression, anxiety, or irritability

  • Need for attention

  • Fears of potential impending loss

Here’s an example of the first category:

Lou: "I think that I feel the most misunderstood when I just need a hug and you interpret it as wanting sex. Maybe the way I touch you seems like I’m coming on to you?”

Jean: “You’re right. I do think your hugs are always very sensual and you have that agenda. When I don’t respond in the way I think you want me to, you look sad, like you’re disappointed. I’m sure I pull back a little when that happens. Maybe you see that response as rejecting you, even when you just want a hug.”

Step Two: Identifying and Naming the Behaviors

When you are in one of the moods that your partner repeatedly misinterprets, you may be giving different messages between your nonverbal cues and the phrases you are using. Pay attention to your body language, your voice intonations, your facial expressions, and your rhythms and see if they are synchronizing with what you are saying.

Here’s an example:

Gerry: “I’m usually embarrassed if I need you too much when you’re obviously preoccupied. I know I give mixed signals because my mom did that to me. I act like I don’t care but start picking on you about little things that I think you will notice. I guess it’s just to get your attention without coming out and asking directly for it. I’m going to call that my I-need-you-but-don’t-want-to-ask-you-for-fear-of-getting-rejected state. It feels stupid and really immature, but it’s the way I feel.”

Kim: “Wow. I know exactly what that is, but I always interpreted it as you just wanting to start a fight and I’d get defensive right away. I never knew you just needed me to care for you. That would be easy if you just asked. Now, I’ll know but you have to promise me that you’ll own up when I point it out.”

Step Three: Associating Nonverbal Behavior with Internal States

Write down what nonverbal signals you typically pair with each of the three areas you have chosen for this exercise. For instance, if one of you is normally talkative, but become more silent when you are worried, your partner needs to know that silence is communicating your internal anxiety.

Or, if you snap back when your partner asks you a question, and you do not typically do that, he or she needs to know if that is a nonverbal way of saying that you’re frustrated about something that may have nothing to do with the relationship. If you are preoccupied and that’s one of the three issues that you normally get stuck at, perhaps you look away or find it hard to maintain a conversation.

Here's an example:

Georgia: “I’m going to show you how my nonverbal expressions typically go with whatever mood I’m in at the time. Wow. I just realized from doing this exercise that, when I want to get close to you, I act like a cat by sort of being sassy and unavailable at the same time. I realize I start to tease, and sometimes probably get a little feisty. My voice gets sharp and a little pushy. When you don’t respond by wanting me, I get angry and frustrated, and I’m sure you can hear it. Maybe you think I’m just being bitchy?"

Kyle: “I never knew that. I thought you were still mad at me from our argument last night and just looking for a way to make me feel bad about what I said. It never occurred to me that you were trying to get close again. I just assumed that the irritation in your voice meant I was in the doghouse for sure and I did what I always do when I feel like there is no way I can fix this. I pull away.”

Step Four: Role Play for Emphasis and Clarity

This is the part of this exercise that many partners have the most fun doing. You’re going to show your partner one of his or her moods as if you were playing charades, and ask him or her to guess which of the three moods you are portraying.

Let your partner then mimic what he or she has just seen you do, and let yourself observe what you would guess, as if you were seeing yourself. When your partner acts as you have, does it look and feel familiar? You may want to add some new gestures or change the ones you see to make your nonverbal thoughts and feelings even more clear to your partner.

Here's an example:

Sheila: “Let me show you how you look when I feel as if I can’t reach you.”

Jim: “You look pulled in and preoccupied. I get it. It looks very uninviting when your body language looks so withdrawn and your words are short and sound a little mean-spirited. I understand now what you really feel. Probably for the first time.”

Step Five: Levels of Intensity

Your nonverbal communication of any of the three areas you’ve chosen will vary in intensity from one situation to another. It’s not always easy for someone on the other end to know how deeply you are feeling what you are communicating. Your observable behavior may look the same to your partner.

The easiest and most direct way to make sure you’re getting what your partner intends is to ask them to assign a number from one to ten to describe the level of intensity behind the behavior you are observing. Then ask your partner how close you’ve come to interpreting the level of intensity accurately.

Here's an example:

John: "These are the three areas I’ve picked that you seem to misunderstand the most often: preoccupation that you see as not caring, needing attention when I just want to connect, and physical irritability when I’m stressed out about something.

"Tonight, I’m a 3 in preoccupation, a 9 in needing attention, and a 1 in irritability. How would you have read me?"

Carolyn: “I would have guessed that you were 6 in preoccupation, a 4 in needing my attention, and a 5 in irritability. Wow, I can see how my intensity assumptions have really thrown me off course so often.”

Step Six: Validation and Encouragement

When you do this exercise together, try to be as authentic and open as you can be, even if some of the interactions are a little embarrassing. If you’ve agreed that a set of nonverbal behaviors mean what they signal, do not defend, argue, or invalidate your partner’s accurate description of what he or she sees and comments upon.

When you’re pretty sure you’ve got those three areas down, begin to add others. You will be pleasantly surprised at how much better both of you will get at guessing each other’s moods, but how much less you will end up in the arguments that have often resulted from prior misunderstandings.

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