Whether one is married, cohabiting, or dating someone steadily, problems invariably arise. Often, but hardly always, they can be quickly resolved. I’ve provided online counseling for the last eight years to individuals and couples with troubled relationships and can pinpoint a major factor which fuels unnecessary conflict, and a recommendation if one or both parties seek professional help.

A common feature of much discord among couples is what cognitive therapists call mind-reading— the assumption that someone’s state of mind can readily be inferred from their words or actions. This method is notoriously unreliable because behavior and communication (especially texts) are often misunderstood. 

Quite a few clients have, for example, been distraught to discover their partner has been downloading pornography. That person’s unhappiness in the relationship and/or with their sex life is presumed. Yet, these are the least likely explanations. 

Curiosity is probably the primary motivation: porn sites account for a third of all downloads worldwide. Boredom with self-generated sexual fantasies (a nearly universal human activity) is a close second. Even if the pornographic themes are disturbing one can’t assume a serious desire to enact them any more than with comparable non-sexual fantasies (e.g., killing one’s boss).

Even when one discovers a partner flirting, or even sexting, long distance with someone on social media, it might be more reflective of a desire for ego gratification than disenchantment with their relationship or a presumed prelude to an affair.

Established partners are expected to find each other appealing. Compliments. however sincere, may not be as psychologically rewarding as ones made by some strangers. Women often get attention from males who stare at them or try to initiate conversations in public places. This is generally viewed as annoying, and even harassment, but it also delivers an implicit message that can be ego-enhancing. Men, who are not celebrities, rarely get that sort of approbation in public. They are more inclined to utilize active methods to achieve the same end. Flirting per se does not indicate a desire to go beyond that.

When one’s interpretation of a partner’s behavior is extremely upsetting, the emotional reaction produced is often perceived as sufficient evidence for its validity. People believe they wouldn’t be so upset if there were no basis for it. On the contrary, they may be engaging in emotional reasoning, just like hypochondriacs who believe obsessive worry about having a severe medical problem proves they have one.

So, if mind-reading and emotional reasoning often misinterpret reality, what is a better approach when one discovers something unexpected and disturbing about one’s partner? The best option is considering a variety of explanations and the relative strength of the evidence for each. Alternately, one can ask the partner what the behavior signifies, but with finesse to avoid putting them on the defensive. Regarding pornography, one might casually mention having read the statistics on how prevalent consumption is; even expressing one’s own curiosity. If this observation is not clearly seen to be directed at the partner’s use, a revealing response might be forthcoming.

If someone discovers a partner is texting or sexting a stranger whose zip code is not remote, there is undoubtedly a more significant potential for an actual liaison. The behavior might well be just for ego-gratification or expressing a side of their personality missing in normal life—a shy person role-playing their opposite— or it could be more, even if one’s relationship appears to be happy.

Confrontation, however, is less likely to bring about clarity or resolution. Even if contact ceases under pressure or threats, fantasies can remain, and relapse is a distinct possibility. If mind-reading skills are rare, the ability to convincingly lie about clandestine behavior is not. Thus, in cases involving liaisons with others, and with other situations where observation or mind-reading is accurate (e.g., substance abuse, anger management, growing apart, sexual problems), professional counseling might help.

Unfortunately, people with relationship problems who receive individual, or even couple counseling, often get less than ideal assistance. In the former situation, the most common, the counselor will only know about the partner as depicted by their client. Such information is invariably limited because clients typically lack some relevant facts and may also fail to provide information about themselves central to comprehending their partner’s behavior. In traditional couple counseling, one or both parties might be reluctant, for many reasons, to be entirely forthcoming in front of the other.

Counselors rarely suggest speaking to each partner separately—even once with both parties’ confidentiality assured—whether providing individual or couples counseling. Worries about being thought “disloyal” to their client(s) supersede concerns about missing critical information. This convention induces help-givers to engage in mind-reading and emotional reasoning too. It is therefore up to clients to insist a counselor agree to break with tradition—or find one who will.