By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Relationships can be complicated; and the skills that make them successful are, likewise, sometimes complicated. An extremely important skill that illustrates this is mentalizing. This psychological term refers to the ability of people to understand how people’s minds work, apply this knowledge to their own situations, and relate to these insights in an emotionally engaged way. People with a strong ability to mentalize have the often difficult-to-attain perspective of understanding themselves from the outside and others from the inside. As a result, they are good at communicating their struggles to their partners; and they are also good at understanding their partner’s experiences.
People with a good ability to mentalize are likely to understand that thinking (including theirs) is subject to error. For instance, consider Kathy, who is strong in this area. Her anger toward her husband, Jim, simmered for years. She felt taken for granted and wasn’t even sure he really loved her. She couldn’t remember the last time he had taken her out for a date night or gotten her a thoughtful gift. She finally talked to him about this. Jim acknowledged not doing these things, but he was emphatic about loving her. He explained that he showed his love and appreciation in other ways; by making her coffee each morning and cooking dinner on the weekends. Once Kathy absorbed that she was wrong, that she simply hadn’t seen how he showed his love, she felt better about their relationship. Also, after this conversation, Jim made sure to sometimes propose going out; and to even give her an occasional just-because gift. But equally important, Kathy’s ability to acknowledge that she had been wrong about Jim opened her up to thinking (and feeling) differently about him and their marriage.
If you can mentalize well, you will see benefits from it in your relationship. You will be able to accept that your thinking can be biased or just plain wrong; and you’ll be more open to changing established patterns within yourself. In the above example, this acknowledgment might help Kathy realize that she is affected by a long history of not feeling cared about – one that long predates her husband and sometimes happens in her other relationships, too. Similarly, when people who are often angry with others acknowledge the possibility that their anger might be misplaced, they can begin to question their own reactions. And, when others who define themselves as “losers” acknowledge the possibility of biased thinking, they can begin to take note of their successes; and acknowledge the way they tend to discount those experiences. In each of these examples, people can use their doubts to gain new insights into their problem.
You can use your doubts in a similar way. Consider struggles that you have in a particular relationship. Get curious about it. Ask yourself questions, such as:
Is there a theme that also exists in other relationships? This might mean that the problem is at least partly within you – either in picking particular people to connect with, or in how you see them and engage with them.
Why do you think you’ve said or done certain things? Consider whether your motivation is related to past experiences, particular aspects of you as a person, or dynamics in your current relationship.
Why do you think the other person said or did certain things? Consider whether their motivation is related to past experiences, particular aspects of them as a person, or dynamics in your current relationship.
This curious approach toward yourself and your situation will make the most of – or even increase – your ability to mentalize. And, though it takes serious effort, it has a very real possibility of helping you to be a better partner in a happier relationship.
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