Ray Lack, a Westchester building contractor, awoke the other morning thinking about an old schoolmate, wondering where he had put the guy's phone number. But before he had a chance to ask his wife, Susan, about it, she beat him to the punch: Had he heard from his old school pal recently?
"I said, 'Hey, I just woke up thinking about him,' " said Lack.
The phenomenon of a mate who finishes the other's sentence, says what the other is thinking or knows what a partner needs without asking happens often enough. But is it telepathy, or is it attributable to finely honed intuitive skills?
Some ability to know what a mate is feeling or thinking comes from being highly attuned to each other's behavioral cues, posture, subliminal messages, gestures, moods and tone of voice, according to psychologists, and is an acuity women possess disproportionately to men.
But Karen Shanor, a clinical psychologist in Washington D.C., speculates that beyond the intuitive ability to read a mate, couples do unconsciously pick up on each other's thoughts. "I think people do pick up on each others' thought waves just like radio frequencies are picked up by certain radio bands," said Shanor, author of "The Emerging Mind" (Renaissance Books, 2000), which details recent brain research suggesting people can read others' thoughts. "When couples have been together a long time, they do tune in to each other's frequencies."
Most people do believe that a mate or lover should be able to read their mind, according Daniel Shoultz, a clinical social psychologist in Columbia, S.C. "We are not talking about intuition here or reading body language," said Shoultz. "For the average person, the expectation is 'Honey, I have done that so many times, you know what I am thinking.' "
In 1990, Shoultz and colleagues at the University of South Carolina in Columbia examined the effects of five basic beliefs about relationships upon 210 couples.
"Mind reading is expected" was one such belief. (Others were "disagreement is destructive" and "sexual perfectionism," as in "sex will always be great.") Not surprisingly, people who expected a mate to read their mind all the time had the most unfulfilling marriages. "This was really the notion of 'Because my feeling is so intense about this . . . you know what I am feeling and . . . know what I am thinking about it,' " said Shoultz. He added that people with extreme mind-reading expectations reported feeling unloved in their marriages and in childhood. "This kind of mind-reading expectation is connected to an idea of romantic love that 'If you really loved me, you would know.' "
Couples who expected each other to be mind readers were, in a word, dysfunctional. Many people are notoriously bad not only at mind reading but also at simply knowing basic details about the one they love.
University of Texas at Austin psychology professor William Swann asked 80 couples (who'd been together for periods ranging from three weeks to six years) to answer questions about a mate's sexual history, exercise preference and self-esteem.
"The confidence level was much higher for those who were with their partner longer, but the accuracy was no higher," said Swann, who added that people have some information about a mate, then extrapolate into areas where they lack information. "The success rate for both was modest at best."
Miscalculations and misjudgments in mind reading occur partly because the wishes, perceptions and faulty memories of one mate muddy what he or she thinks the other wants, say psychologists.
These are not issues for the Lacks, who have been married eight years and would never rely on mind reading to deal with the nitty-gritty challenges of marriage. "I wish we could," quipped Susan Lack. Ray Lack sees it as "just a cosmic coincidence."
If nothing else, one partner saying what the other is thinking charges the air with feelings of oneness. And, hey, it's a timesaver.
Kathleen Kelleher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.