This guest article from Psych Central was written by Suzanne Phillips, Psy.D., ABPP
A recent study reported in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that young couples are actually better than long-term partners at knowing each other’s preferences. In this study of 38 young couples aged 19 to 32 and 20 older couples aged 62 to 78; the older couples had far more difficulty correctly predicting their partners’ food preferences.
Adding to this counterintuitive finding is the fact that the older couples actually expressed more confidence in “knowing” their partners than the younger couples and they actually knew less. Older couples also predicted that their partner’s preferences would be similar to theirs – they were wrong!!
What Does This Suggest?
The authors of the study prompt us to wonder – How do we fall out of “knowing” our partners? Is there a tendency over time to pay less attention to our partners? Do we actually project more and understand less?
The Reality of Change
The definition of the verb “to know” is to understand as fact or truth, to be acquainted with, and to understand from experience. We may know, for example that in terms of personality traits, our partner is more open to experiences than we are, more extroverted, less nervous, perhaps more affectionate. While such traits are enduring in some ways, they are compounded by many other factors that shape both our knowledge of self and our partner.
Perhaps the underlying message of the study above is the realization that partners and the relationships they share are never static. Whether by choice, age, or crisis, people change.
The challenge that emerges is the need to believe that we “know” our partner in order to feel safe while at the same time recognizing there is so much”more to know” over time. Reflecting this, in his book, Can Love Last? Stephen Mitchell proposes that for romance to last, partners need to blend the familiar with the mystery and intrigue of the unknown.
The Challenges of Knowing
When working with couples trying to understand one another, it goes without saying that the counterpart to “knowing” your partner is the “wish to be known.” A close look at the following couple dynamics will highlight some of the challenges to really knowing and being known over time.
Presumptions of Knowing
While most partners are delighted by the other’s efforts to remember the exact name and size of their designer coffee or the perfect returnable holiday gift, presumptions of knowing often impede the process of knowing a partner.
Most partners don’t want the other to finish their sentence or question a change “Since when do you order fish?” “You never want dessert. Are you sure you want cheesecake?”
In many cases the presumption to know precludes the possibility of growing. “I turned down the hiking invitation with the Clarks – I told them you don’t like to sweat.” (This comment is likely to do more damage than just preclude possibilities).
Failure to Recognize Change
One of the most distressing things for people is the failure to be recognized by their partner for changes that they have already made. It not only impedes “knowing” – it is often cause for anger and despair.
“He always treats me badly in front of my family.” vs. “That has not been true for years – how can you say that?”
“We haven’t traveled much – she’s afraid to fly.” vs. “I can’t believe you are saying that – who was with you on the last vacation to California?”
One wonders if the failure to know a partner in a new way reflects the anxiety associated with any changes (good or bad) in the person you once knew.
Needing to Know Too Much
Texts or emails many times a day may be valuable to partners who both want to know the daily life of the other in detail.
For others, this may feel like a demand to know or disclose that actually impedes the wish to share or be known. What you know about your partner should unfold in a way that is natural and works for both.
It is worth recognizing and addressing the fact that one partner may have a greater need to know or be known than the other. While you are free to disclose what you want, think twice about demanding it from your partner.
Remember the lyrics by Police, “Every Breath you take, every move you make… every step you take, I’ll be watching you.” That’s not about knowing – it’s about stalking!
Not Wanting to Be Known
One of the signs that a relationship is shaky is a partner’s desire not to be known. This might reflect:
The relationship has stopped feeling safe as in the case of a possessive, abusive or intrusive partner.
There is no longer the desire to be involved or committed.
There is a betrayal or secret that is being withheld that could jeopardize the relationship.
There has been a traumatic event, critical incident, or combat stress experience that has made the partner feel unlovable, vulnerable, frightened, guilty or bereaved in a way that makes them protect their partner by not sharing – “ by not being known.”
As discussed in the blog “Secrets, Lies and Relationships,” the need to address such situations in crucial. In the case of trauma and combat stress – even sharing the “fear” of being known without the details is a giant step toward re-connection and understanding.
No Desire to Know
When there is no desire to know the partner, the spark, the joy and the possibilities of a truly close relationship disappear. Partners stay insiders to each other when they confide, take an interest and want to know more. It simply is not enough to once have known or to presume to know. Part of the vibrancy of a relationship is to cherish what was and look forward to what else can be.
Maybe it’s not just “to know” is to love but “to keep on knowing!”