Do You Still Know Your Partner?

A 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 about “knowing” their partners than the younger couples even though they actually knew less. Older couples also predicted that their partner’s preferences would be similar to theirs — and they were wrong about that, too,

The Reality of Change

The authors of the study prompted 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?

We may know or think we know, our partner. As such, we may consider our partner to be less open to experiences than we are, but perhaps more affectionate. Yet while many believe that our personalities are fixed in childhood, emerging research suggests that many people’s personalities evolve throughout their lives.

Personality actually seems to change for the better with age: Findings suggest that conscientiousness improves with age after turning 20 and agreeableness, a trait associated with being warm, generous and helpful, increases into the 60s.

Add to that the reality that our lives are not static. Most of us find that our behaviors, beliefs, and goals are compounded by life events. 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.

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 ingredients of their designer coffee or their favorite leisure activity, 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?” “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.”)

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. One partner may say, “He always treats me badly in front of his family,” and the other may rightly think, “That has not been true for years – how can she say that?”

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. Consider:

  • 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.
  • It may feel more like stalking than knowing and loving. Remember the lyrics to the famous Police song: “Every breath you take, every move you make… every step you take, I’ll be watching you.”

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 that:

  • The relationship has stopped feeling safe, as in the case of a possessive, abusive or intrusive partner.
  • The demands on being known have left the partner with no privacy or separate sense of self.
  • There is a betrayal or secret that is being withheld that could jeopardize the relationship.

The Impact of a Traumatic Event

Sometimes there has been a traumatic event, critical incident, or combat stress experience that has made one partner feel unlovable, vulnerable, frightened, guilty, or bereaved in a way that makes them withhold their pain and worries. They may be protecting their partner by not sharing—by not being known.

This is often a painful situation for which both partners may benefit from help. Joint or individual intervention with a mental health professional may safely open the space to see oneself apart from the pain.

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.

The Gift of Knowing

When there is no desire to know one’s partner, the spark, the joy, and the possibilities of a truly close relationship disappear. Partners stop being insiders to each other when they stop confiding, become uninterested or simply don’t need to know about the other.

For a relationship to work, it is simply not enough to once have known or to presume to know. Part of the vibrancy of a relationship is to cherish what is known and look forward to what else can be known.

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