The Reality of How Little We Know Our Partners
We all harbor this common illusion — a sense that we know the people we are in love with. We hold close and true, this feeling that we really know our partners.
We think we move in similar directions, that we are on similar paths. We think we are driven by shared goals and perhaps bound by similar fears.
We come to anticipate things they do, understanding the moods they might be in, when, and why. We think we know how they’ll react — to us (‘I’ve clearly disappointed him’) and others (‘this situation is clearly going to escalate to a manager’). We think we can read their mind.
But how wrong we are.
The sweet, sweet lie
The truth is, our ability to understand the thoughts and the emotions of those we love is less like an inherent skill that we refine over time and more like a periodic combing of the desert with a hair pick.
We are not as good at this exercise as we think we are.
In Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want, Nicholas Epley confirms:
“[y]ou are indeed better able to read the minds of close friends and loved ones than those of strangers, although not by all that much.”
Of course, if you’ve ever felt misunderstood by your partner or ever been told by your partner that they feel misunderstood, this news will not come as a huge surprise. And if you don’t fall into either of these categories, you’re probably not reading this anyway because you are busy enjoying a fantastic, healthy, and mutually rewarding relationship. Good for you.
The fault in our thinking
It’s not just the fact that we don’t know everything we assume we do about the person we’re in love with (or people, depending on your preference, the arrangement, or the reality of the relationship). It’s that we think we know far more than we actually do.
“Getting to know someone, even over a lifetime of marriage, creates an illusion of insight that far surpasses actual insight.” — Epley
And these illusions can have dangerous consequences. I’ve always said that thinking is dangerous …
The stories we spin
There’s an apathy, a lack of effort, that results when we think we already know what our partner is thinking or feeling. We assume we know what’s going on behind those eyes, and we filter words, behaviors, and actions through these narratives.
What we end up doing is just making things up. Plain and simple. We jump around their personality, their dreams, their fears, all nimbly bimbly.
Really, though, we’re drinking milk out of the wrong saucer. We’re wandering in the wrong desert, looking for the wrong princess, and undoubtedly using the wrong hair pick.
And, as certain things in relationships tend to do, our confidence in our ability to understand our partners only gets worse over time — because we blindly assume it’s getting better.
“[O]verconfidence increased in proportion to how long two people had been together.”
“More time together did not make the couples any more accurate; it just gave them the illusion that they were more accurate.” — Epley
The blind leading the blind
But hang on!
We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for not knowing our partners like we think we do. All the while we are misunderstanding them and glossing over their emotional needs, they’re busy doing the exact same thing to us.
And the story doesn’t end there. To round out this whole sordid affair, the reality is that neither we nor our partners have a solid idea of what we are thinking and feeling at any given moment.
“[T]here can be a significant disconnect between what people think about themselves and how they actually behave.”
“Unconscious processes seem largely responsible for much of what we do habitually in daily life, and conscious processes seem largely responsible for making sense of what we do so that we can explain it to ourselves and others.” — Epley
Excellent. This seems like a win-win scenario.
The tough, tough pill to swallow
It’s no wonder we come up empty, then. We fight. We splinter. We break.
Our hopes, needs, wants, and desires are somewhere out there in the ether, dancing with those of our partner — discoverable (maybe) but nowhere near the surface of the reality that we skate across daily.
We hope that we will do the painstaking work required to unearth as many fragments of our partner’s heart and mind as we can — at least enough to give us a sense of who they were, who they are, and who they dream to be. We also hope that they will do the same for us.
But it’s hard.
Instead, we continue to make assumptions and to perpetuate misunderstandings. And then we give up altogether.
Post Script — The happiest of endings
I am obviously not in the business of offering optimistic endings — I have a reputation to uphold, after all — but Epley does give some great advice in Mindwise.
Spoiler alert: asking and listening is a great place to start.