When We Can't See Someone : making assumptions in relationships

In my experience, after over 30 years of working in the fields of personal & community development, counselling & therapy, I can categorically say that one of the most damaging dynamics for relationships, any kind of relationship regardless of it's nature, is when one or both people make assumptions about what the other person thinks, feels, wants or believes.

Simply put - this is where one person believes they know, or are fairly certain, what the other person thinks, believes, wants or feels about something without actually hearing it, or properly understanding it, directly from the other person.


We all have our own stories running in our minds - previous experiences, both 'positive' & 'negative', & beliefs that inform what we think, how we feel, what we believe is possible in relationships & much more. This is normal, natural & also not necessarily conducive to high quality relationships!

What happens when we believe we know what someone else thinks, feels or wants is that we don't really see or understand who they are, we see what is true for us instead. Again, this is normal & to be expected, particularly if we've had painful relationship experiences in the past as we're likely to be more protective &, perhaps, untrusting, but it means we are not actually in a relationship with this person - we can't be because we aren't fully hearing & seeing who they are - we are in a relationship with an aspect of our own past self.


Have you ever found yourself feeling sure that someone thinks or believes or feels a particular way only to discover, usually after a conversation, that you were wrong & they actually think or feel differently than you thought?

Maybe you thought someone wasn't interested in you, sexually or romantically, but you later discovered they were interested, you just interpreted their actions & words in a particular way & it was you who 'got it wrong'? In this realm in particular we often expect others to behave the same way, or in a similar way, to us & so we interpret their behaviour through the lens of our own behaviour when, in fact, no two people's behaviours are the same!

Maybe you feel someone wants something from you or with you that you don't want, have they actually said they want it or are you assuming they do based on your own beliefs & past experiences, perhaps even your fears?


When we make assumptions about what others want, think, feel or need we are doing their thinking for them, not only is it diminishing the person's autonomy & sovereignty but it also means we don't really see or feel who they really are, we see who we believe them to be & these two things are never the same. Equally, especially in intimate relationships, the time & energy spent clarifying & discussing perceived or real misunderstandings is time that could be spent doing much more fun things together!


The crucial question is, though, do we really want to see this person & have in-the-moment real relating with them or are we 'happy' to continue living within the illusions of our own assumptions, therefore limiting our possibility for real intimacy & connection? I suspect this is the reason why many people unconsciously make & maintain their assumptions about others, it's safer somehow to believe someone thinks, feels, wants or believes something they don't because the truth is far more scary & something we want to protect ourselves from - often this is protection from emotional connection, intimacy, investment & therefore protection from imagined future hurt.


So, of course, the next questions are, how do we become more aware of the assumptions we make about others & how do we stop doing that in order to 'see' this person more clearly & therefore the relationship between us more clearly?

Honestly, it's pretty easy but it does require conscious effort, ongoing practice, self reflection &, often, a good deal of humility.

There are some simple key concepts, The Three Cs, to hold in mind & heart here:


When we make assumptions about what others think, feel, want or believe we have closed the door to curiosity, both about ourselves & about the other person as well as curiosity about the relationship between us.

When we make assumptions about others we have decided that we, at least in part, know who they are and we give them less or no space to show us who they actually are - there's no small element of arrogance here hiding in, what might also be, self protection.

When we close the door to curiosity we also close the door to uncertainty, to growth & expansion - and perhaps that's exactly why people close that door, because it might lead to uncertainty & change! Uncertainty & change, especially in the context of intimate relationships, are scary for most people. Most people want some level of certainty or security in their intimate relationships so to say ''I don't know'', to oneself or another person, leaves us open to having our insecurities arise & sometimes significantly so, perhaps even ruining a great relationship prospect.

When we close the door to curiosity we also close the door to the possibility of feeling hurt. If I assume that I know what someone else thinks, feels, wants or believes then I can potentially protect myself from feelings or emotions that may, now or in the future, cause me to feel emotional pain.

Cultivating curiosity is the work-around here. Try to catch yourself every time you think you know what another person thinks, feels, wants or believes - notice that an assumption has been made & turn that assumption into a question instead.

Try to make the question as open ended as possible, for example, ''tell me what you think about......'' or ''can you share your thoughts with me on.....?''
Try to listen to what's being said in order to understand the other person instead of listening in order to reply to them, or to state your own case.


Courage matters here because we need some level of courage to admit we might have been wrong, that maybe we didn't understand something we thought we did, we might even have to apologise & eat a large portion of humble pie, & for many people, & their ego, that's difficult.

Without that humility & courage we risk losing or damaging relationships that could, ultimately, be really fun, exciting & nourishing for us. Is it easier to walk away or to imagine the truth as we believe it to be or is it, ultimately, more satisfying & meaningful to really open ourselves up to the possibility of real connection with ourselves & another person? I know I will always choose the latter but also know that others, for many reasons, will choose the former.

When you notice that you haven't understood someone correctly, when you realise that you've assumed something that was incorrect - own up to it, admit it to yourself & then to the other person. In this admission we create the possibility for real connection & intimacy, also for much clearer communication & deeper understanding, thus opening the possibility for a more meaningful & satisfying relationship.

Can we ever feel or be too clear with ourselves or another person, or have too much clarity from them? I don't think so! The more important the relationship is to us the higher the stakes & the more important clarity becomes in order to avoid misunderstandings that could damage the relationship. 

In intimate relationships clarity can't come too early, in my opinion, but I would start at a place that, perhaps, others might not - with defining the terms we're using when we talk about 'relationship' & even before that, clarity starts with ourselves.

The most important place to be clear is with oneself.
What is it I desire? What do I want & not want? What am I available for & what can I offer someone else that is within my current capacity to offer? Only once we are clear with ourselves can we be clear with others, with the understanding that we communicate to the other person if we're not clear yet.

One of the primary places I see misunderstanding caused by assumptions is with regard to the language we use in terms of 'relationship'. Even the word 'relationship' itself - what does that mean to you? What does it include or exclude? What does that mean in practical terms? What do you need from it or not need from it?

Mostly, I see people assume that 'just because I mean x, y & z when I talk about relationship other people mean the same thing' - this is mostly definitely not always the case. Many people do not assume monogamy, many do not assume a relationship trajectory of dating, moving in, marrying etc, many people want to keep their independence & yet share certain aspects of their life with another person.

We can't know what someone thinks, feels, wants or believes unless:

A. They tell us
B. They are sure we've actually understood them correctly!

One of the easiest ways to ensure clarity between two people is this simply exercise:

Person A communicates to person B what it is they want them to understand.

Person B repeats what they have heard & understood, really understood, using their own words to Person A.

Person A replies with ''Great, you've got it'' or ''hmmm let me try to explain it in a different way'' or whatever it is that's true for them in terms of what they hear Person B understanding

This clarification goes back & forth until Person A feels that Person B has really understood their point & until Person B has also, obviously, understood what Person A wants them to understand.

Time consuming? A little, but surely it's better to take some time to ensure we understand & are understood by the people we care most about rather than risk misunderstanding, hurt feelings & perhaps damaged relationships? I think so.

Last updated 27/08/22