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You Definitely Don’t Know Your Partner As Well As You Think

We’ve all heard horror stories about partners who are shocked to discover they never knew each other at all. He had a secret second family! She was actually in love with a penguin! Less discussed is that even in “normal” relationships where there are no bizarre omissions or trysts, new research suggests that people rarely know each other as well as they think they do. Don’t get too upset though, this may be totally fine, or even good.

In some leading research, scientists looked at couples who’d been together an average of 10 years, over half of whom were married, and asked them to predict how their partner would feel about 20 various statements,” NPR reports in their Invisibilia podcast. The participants felt confident that they would guess how their partner felt about 13 of the 20, such as “I would like to spend a year in London or Paris,” or “I would rather spend a quiet evening at home rather than go out to a party.” In reality, they only accurately predicted five statements about their partners, confirming that nobody knows anything at all, even about the person they sleep next to every night for a decade.

Super sad? Maybe. Also totally normal. Discussing the experiments he and his colleagues conducted, behavioral science professor Nicholas Epley explains at NPR that “The problem with our inferences about others is not incompetence, but hubris. We tend to think we understand each other better than we actually do.”

But the question is why? You’d think that, even with very little effort, part of the act of meeting someone and falling in love with them is getting to know them, which by design, leads to understanding them. Even if you made zero effort, sheer exposure to another human in real time over and over, day in and day out, tends to result in familiarity, which leads to, bare minimum, being able to guess whether they are a party animal or a recluse. Doesn’t it?

Epley’s research suggests that this is actually not the case at all. His team conducted some 25 different experiments studying the connection between what they call “perspective-taking,” or trying to imagine how someone you know would feel, and the degree of accuracy therein. They found that it is a very tenuous connection.

Epley writes:

If anything, perspective-taking tended to decrease accuracy, including in the romantic couples study I described earlier. This experiment included another condition in which one member of each couple was asked to put themselves in their partner’s shoes before predicting their partner’s responses. This perspective-taking actually decreased accuracy compared to the control group I already described, but it slightly increased the number of items these perspective-takers thought they had predicted correctly.

So the more people tried to guess how their partners might feel, the more they patted themselves on the back for thinking they were making a real effort to totally get the other person, when they actually understood less. Uh, lol?

What Epley and his team did find was interesting, if a bit obvious: Actually being able to guess how your partner feels is not impossible, it just takes something other than guessing. Epley calls this “perspective getting,” instead of “perspective taking.” It’s what it sounds like: You actually “get” their perspective by ”listening” to them “talk” which you then actually “remember.”

“The easiest way to get another’s perspective,” Epley told NPR, “is by simply asking them to describe what’s actually going on in their minds in a context where they can report it both honestly and accurately.”

The mind reels. That said, maybe this is one arena men have figured out. Another recent study — this one about predictors of relationship dissolution, or rather, things that make people break up — found that what might make a relationship last over the long haul is having a lower standard about the quality of that connection. And that men are probably cooler with that lower standard.

Researchers at The Williams Institute of UCLA’s law school looked at 515 couples over 12 years — hetero and gay — and found that gay men were more likely to stick together, regardless of whether the couples in question were married or not and regardless of whether or not they had children.

Lesbian couples were twice as likely to breakup as gay men, and 1.5 times more likely to break up than heterosexual couples. There were two other factors that shored up relationships for the long term regardless of orientation — being older, and being together longer. And of course relationship quality matters — having a better relationship was a big predictor of staying together.

But here’s the thing: what men and women think of as a good relationship may be pretty different, and in this study, the researchers think men having lower standards may be why they endure when women are not in the picture.

“Other studies on heterosexual couples have found that women have higher standards for relationship quality than men,” study author Esther Rothblum said in the UCLA press release. “We suspect that similar dynamics may be at play with the lesbian couples in our study, leading to the higher dissolution rate.”

It’s a funny study, because it actually upends the stereotype that gay men are promiscuous and not capable of long-term commitment — long used to justify never granting legal marriage rights to same-sex couples. Yet, it simultaneously reinforces the stereotype that women be talkin,’ and want to be deeply known, felt, seen, and understood in relationships or else they’re miserable and more likely to ditch.

But beyond these stereotypes, we also know that the pressure to be all things to your mate, and to be so connected as to no longer have individual identities and boundaries, is also death to a relationship. Many experts cite too high standards as a bigger predictor of divorce these days. No longer happy with the companionate marriage, most people are now engaged in what’s called “self-expressive marriage,” meaning we don’t want just a partner to weather life with. We want a soulmate.

But that hasn’t worked out so great. It turns out that you can be too chummy; you don’t have to be best friends with your mate, and we’ve come to slowly understand that there’s a healthy amount of distance and not knowing that keeps relationships alive over the long haul. As sex and relationship therapist Esther Perel has written, “With too much distance, there can be no connection. But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals.” This, she says, is the “essential paradox of intimacy and sex.”

In other words, you should always be doing some kind of dance between knowing someone completely, while maintaining enough mystique to remain curious and interested. Who knows whether that is the equivalent of being able to accurately predict 5 statements or 13 or 20. But clearly, some of us have figured out that this may not be, and never was, the point.