- Some people are equipped with the advantage of having natural talents in social skills.
- Some, including those with autism or social deficits, may have a challenging time reading tone, facial expressions, and body language.
- In intimate relationships, escalation can block the ability to understand and connect.
The path from casual, to friendly, to intimate is beset with obstacles. If it wasn’t for the force of passion, people might not pair up at all. Some are skilled at navigating these roads, and they have an advantage in games of love. Just like athletic or intellectual talents, some have an aptitude, and others don’t. Even kindergartners show different levels of social skills, and those with more natural abilities are more popular among their little peers. Life is harder for those who struggle to read others.
Take the example of autism. Although this condition has a thousand variations, there are a few key features. One is the presence of social deficits. Those on the autism spectrum often have a hard time reading emotions or facial cues. Prominent autistic professor and advocate Temple Grandin said that she wondered if other children were telepathic since they easily grasped other’s thoughts and feelings that were eluding her. Kamran Nazeer, describing his experience with autism, said that conversations with strangers were his version of “extreme sports” because they were so far out of his comfort zone.
One name for the inability to read social cues is dyssemia. The term comes from the Greek roots dys (difficulty) and semia (signal). This deficit can strain a marriage. One couple saw me because of communication problems, but much of it stemmed from the husband, who had traits of autism and ADHD and constantly misread or missed his wife’s signals. He would go on and on about his work problems and not realize that her expression was pained or disapproving, sending the message, “I don’t care, I am bored to tears with what you are saying.” She also got frustrated when he missed her messages. She would have a hard day and complain, but what she was saying was, “pay attention to me.” This was too indirect for him.
They identified with a story I told them of a couple driving together. In the account, the wife asks, “Are you thirsty?” The husband ponders for a moment, and says, “Nah,” and keeps driving. Later he notices that she is upset and is puzzled. She wasn’t, of course, just asking him a question about his thirst but was making a request. She was telling him she wanted to stop for a drink but doing it in a way that required him to interpret her underlying needs. Some partners are not good at making these connections, and this requires more direct communication.
One classic study suggested that in conversations, about fifty-five percent of the emotional meaning of a message is communicated through facial expressions and body gestures, and about thirty-eight percent is transmitted through the tone of voice. This leaves only seven percent of the emotional meaning conveyed by the words. A person relying only on words might be missing ninety-three percent of the message, which isn’t going to go well in a relationship.
Some partners struggle to understand feelings because they have had their emotional radar damaged. Peter Fonagy has found that some who misread emotions grew up in families where they were overwhelmed. When a child experiences a scary world, they sometimes respond by shutting down. The feelings are so intense that a psychic tourniquet is created to stanch the pain.
Emotional misreads also happen in the presence of danger because high arousal makes a person blind to another’s emotional state. Author Malcom Gladwell calls this “temporarily autistic” because social cues cannot be read during strong arousal. When couples fight, they lose the ability to connect or understand each other.
Those who struggle to read emotions, tone, facial expressions, or body language are at a disadvantage in the already complex world of human relations. These intrepid lovers may need to invest extra time in overt, clear, and patient communication. These efforts to increase understanding will help improve connection.
Adapted from Love Me True: Overcoming the Surprising Ways We Deceive in Relationships. Cedar Fort.
Virginia Slaughter, Kana Imuta, Candida C. Peterson, and Julie D. Henry, "Meta‐Analysis of Theory of Mind and Peer Popularity in the Preschool and Early School Years." Child Development 86, no. 4 (2015): 1159-1174.
Mehrabian, Albert, and Morton Wiener. "Decoding of inconsistent communications." Journal of personality and social psychology 6, no. 1 (1967): 109.