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Background

My fiancee and I recently had a small argument over the following text exchange

F: I wish I could have seen you tonight.

Me: I would have liked to see you tonight too.

F: I always want to see you.

Me: I know you do

F: You're supposed to say you always want to see me too.

We talked through the argument and I found out that she got upset because me saying "I know you do" sounded very callous. She also mentioned that her comment about how I was supposed to respond was a joke. The thing is, I didn't take it as a joke because I hear it so often, and not just from her. I understand what went wrong to cause this particular conflict with my fiancee and how I can avoid it in the future. The thing that I'm having trouble with is understanding why this kind of interaction happens the way it does, not only with my fiancee but with other people as well.

Another good example is with my mother. Being on the autism spectrum, my experience of emotion is quite tricky to navigate. I've long been uncomfortable telling people that I love them. My mother in particular often gets upset if she tells me that she loves me and I don't repeat the phrase back to her.

My observations

Generally speaking, I've noticed a communication pattern where someone who I am close to (such as immediate family or a significant other) will tell me how they feel about me. Then they expect me to reciprocate that exact same feeling for them, and get upset if I don't. I've had people with whom I am not as close express how they feel about me and not get upset if I don't reciprocate. Given this pattern, I believe that there is a social obligation to reciprocate someone's feelings for me even if I don't feel the same way about them, if that person is someone that I am close to.

Question

Why is there a social expectation that when someone close to me tells me how they feel I am supposed to reciprocate those feelings even if I don't actually feel them?

  • This post is being discussed on meta – Rainbacon Mar 6 at 5:51
  • If this question was limited to just conversations with your "significant other" it would make sense and be answerable. There are certainly cases where a partner expects you to mirror (classic one being "I love you"). – DaveG Mar 6 at 11:45
28

I'm going to try to answer the question, since I think I have some insight -- however I recognize that the question is very broad and my answer may not apply to all situations.

The conversation you posted feels really familiar to me, because I'm often the one in your fiancee's position in conversations with my partner. So I will try to answer based on what's going through my head during that kind of exchange.

In my case, it stems from low self-esteem, and it usually happens when I'm missing my partner, or they've canceled plans, or I'm feeling sad, or some other circumstance is leading to me feeling insecure about the relationship. What I really want to ask in that situation is "Do you like me?" or "Do you like spending time with me?" but asking directly feels too needy, so I try to get the reassurance I need indirectly, by stating my feelings and hoping that social conventions will prompt them to reciprocate. And if they don't respond the way I want them to, I often get upset. (If I'm feeling particularly hurt I might make a "joke" about them not responding properly, but it's not really a joke because I'm actually upset.)

It's manipulative and unfair to my partner, and it's something I'm actively working on. That said, I think it's a behaviour that many people do to some extent, and it's useful to be able to respond gracefully.

I suspect that in cases where people express a positive feeling towards you and then expect you to share their feelings, they're not necessarily expecting you to have the same feelings exactly, they're just hoping to hear back something positive about their relationship with you. Assuming you do like them as a person, it should be possible for you to come up with something positive to say, without feeling pressured to reciprocate their feelings exactly.

A: That was fun! I always love going to these events with you!

B: Yeah, I love watching how excited you get when [xyz]!

You don't have to reply by reciprocating exactly ("I love going to these events with you too!") especially if that's not true. But a tactful, reassuring reply can include saying something positive towards the other person.

3

Humans, like most mammals and particularly like primates, are social animals and a lot of our behaviors have been selected by evolution so that we want to fit in the group. Biologists showed that monkeys play to release stress and social psychology demonstrated that we go far in order to blend in a group.

Bonding with others is an essential part of human interactions. When a close relative tells you how they feel about you, they are trying to confirm and strengthen the bond between you and them. They want to know if they are part of "your pack" and if they can rely on you.

Not reciprocating is obviously a stressful experience for them. That explains the phenomenon you observed: the people that are not that close to you are less upset when you are not reciprocating their feelings, because they belong to another social group.

On top of our biological programming, you should take social norms into account. That's quite complicated as it depends on the culture, the social group, the relationship between the people in the conversation, the place it occurs,... For example, if your boss at your company tells at the coffee machine you that he appreciates you and hopes you will be working together for a long time, he is 1) trying to help you release stress and feel better at work and 2) check your loyalty and commitment to the company. Standard answer would be "Yes, I too like working here with this team/company/you. I'll do my best to keep good results".

2

You say you know what went wrong and how to avoid it, but you don’t say what that is.

What went wrong was that your response seems to be an acknowledgment, but it isn’t because what she said isn’t what she meant. ‘I always want to see you’ is impossible, and not what was meant. What was meant was closer to “I want to express my desire for continued closeness with you”, in which context “I know you do” is downright dismissive.

You don’t need to respond with a reciprocal of what is said, but you need to respond to the actual meaning, not the literal meaning.

In this case, “how sweet”, “seeing you makes me happy” or even “aw, shucks” would be better to address the actual meaning, the first and last are acknowledgements that you understood her actual meaning and appreciate it, the middle is of course a reciprocal of what she meant, just said in a different way.

0

There isn't always such an expectation, and you are probably misreading some of your fiancee's signals in assuming a true social convention here. Incidents in specific relationships aren't necessarily microcosms of social expectations.

Upfront I will state plainly that I do not know your fiancee, or any generic person this answer might be applied to, and so any ideas I have here (useful or not) should not be expected to be accurate descriptions of their personal psychology. It's also fundamentally difficult to answer "why" questions about human behavior in an accurate way. Many people probably have no meaningful conception of why they want things. People are also unique, and are not good exemplars of broad social convention in all cases.

With those in mind, I intend my answer to be viewed as perspectives that might help you to deal with these situations, not prescriptions of how people behave or why. So, take the following with a grain of salt, it is definitely not definitive or comprehensive.

1. Projection

Introspection is difficult, and it's also difficult to properly get a sense of another person's mind and thought processes. It seems to me to be universal that people have a basic assumption that their thought processes, values, and perspectives are "normal" ones and are shared by most other people, absent obvious signals otherwise.

If it's a question of what genres of movies you each like it's pretty easy to gauge after a while, and you can probably predict what types of films you each might prefer. But when it comes to an issue like the one in the question, like how and when specific emotions are expressed to the other person, it's much harder to get an overarching conception of other peoples' preferences and needs. In those cases it seems common (in my observation) for people to presume that other people are basically similar to ones' self. I think of it as similar to the idea of an unmarked category-- the "default" is steeped in assumptions (examined or otherwise), and deviations are inherently odd.

2. Reassurance/Validation/Support

This seems less like a social convention to me as it does an element of individual interactions, but the dividing line isn't especially clear to me. Some people want and need support/validation/reassurance about various things at various times, and hope or expect that a person they are close to will provide those things. If you've ever had a friend go through a rough breakup, for example, there is a clear expectation that if your friend describes a complaint about their ex you will acknowledge the complaint and agree.

Other examples may include things like call-and-response routines developed over time (if there is a history that when your fiancee says A, you respond with B, she may expect that response as a matter of habit, and be upset or wrong-footed if she says A and you do not respond accordingly). That's more of a behavioral pattern than a true alignment of thought, but I'm sure that different people regard this sort of thing differently.

It can also be the case that a response is expected and the other person will feel devalued without it. When you spend a lot of time thinking about a gift for someone and choose something you think they will like, you expect a positive reaction when that person receives the gift. If, instead, they look blankly at the gift and then set it aside without comment, it suggests that you were mistaken in thinking that it was a good gift. In a case like this the prescribed type of reaction is really about acknowledging the effort of the other person, not an actual alignment of feelings.

3. Signalling

This one has lots of manifestations, but people seem to do a lot of categorization of things and then try to apply those categories. Consider a broad case like political sentiment today: there are pretty clear sets of views that divide people into broader political factions (think Democrat vs. Republican in the U.S., or pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit in the U.K., as examples).

In a lot of cases people might see something they view as an indicator of membership in a given group, then assume (loosely or specifically) that other group characteristics are also present in the individual. It's not about alignment with the other person, it's about assumptions the other person has made. And people generally like to think that their conclusions are correct (they can identify the right information, think about it in the right way, and extrapolate the right things), so they are expecting their own thought process to be validated and the signals they (think they) have noticed to be good guides to the world.

4. Anything else

Humans are complicated and weird, and I generally feel that if you've come to a conclusion about a question like "why" about their behavior you're being overly reductive. There may well be functionally infinite individual motivations people might have, and your capacity for gaining and properly interpreting the information will be limited in most cases. Further, someone having an expectation of a specific response is not the same as that person understanding why they want it.

All of which is to say that appreciating that someone expects a response and having some sense of what response they are expecting is, in my view, infinitely more valuable than knowing why they might want it. "Why" is usually a very interesting question, but I feel it's almost never a very practical one.

-1

I am too on the spectrum. If you are trying to pass off as completely normal to your fiance, it will not work, or at least will occasionally cause problems such as this. This is because of the deep connection and closeness of this kind of relationship.

Understanding you are on the spectrum and have trouble reacting/sympathizing/empathizing complex to us, matter-of-fact/natural to them is part one, part two is having your SO understand this too. We will always naturally go with what we instinctively think unless we have the capacity/time to explicitly consider what a normal response will be. So you will forever make this mistake time to time, having a SO that understands this will help so much for them not taking this personally and maintaining the relationship.

Easiest is to just be open and apologize/explain when you make the mistake, even if its after you noticed you did bad because of their reaction. Making a joke of it is better, running joke even, as it instantly lightens and passes the problem under the bridge.

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