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How We Know Ourselves: d. Intimately

There is a real paradox in intimate relationships. No one wants to be alone, but for someone to be really with you, especially to be a life partner, means you have to get to know each other extremely well, both in your strengths and your weaknesses, your virtues and your vices. The paradox is that in order to attract and develop a relationship with someone, you have to start out putting your best foot forward. You put on the clothes that are the most complimentary, you flirt and engage in conversations on topics you think another will find interesting, and make you seem interesting. You tell the stories in which you did well, accomplished something, or were admired by others. You need to make yourself stand out. You don’t lie, exactly, and it is probably a better strategy in the long run to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, but it is rarely the whole truth. We feel emotion only when things do not happen exactly as we expect them to happen, else we don’t really feel much at all. And in the early stages what most blows us away is to meet someone who exceeds our expectations (and in turn, when we exceed theirs). But that can’t really be sustained. While we are sometimes surprised to find out new amazing things about someone we didn’t know before (“you were an epiphany”), there are fewer and fewer of those, and getting to know someone better and better is going to increasingly involve finding out more and more about the things about which they are decidedly less proud. These confessions and revelations are certainly also important to getting to know each other better, even though what you are learning about them is less and less positive. When it goes well, and you reveal something about yourself that you maybe don’t like so well, or others did not like in you, you find that it is accepted by this person with whom you are becoming closer and closer. What does “closer and closer” mean if not that you are getting to know someone better and better, and they you? But I think there is always that risk, especially in a developing relationship, where one of you might actually even feel betrayed because the other turns out to “not be who you thought they were.” Happily, there is a brain chemistry which means that in the early “falling in love” stage, your critical capacities are actually suspended, or at least inhibited. We give each other the benefit of the doubt. This is probably important for the development of relationships, but it is difficult to sustain in circumstances where there is no doubt about what someone did. This is probably why the half-life of that wonderful feeling of being “in love” is about two years. Zick Rubin did some research a generation ago and discovered of couples who described themselves as being in love, two years later about half no longer are. The advice I regularly give younger people (also borne of my own sad experience), is not to even think about making a more serious commitment until you have been with someone for at least two years.

So what is happening as you get to know someone better and better? There is less and less that actually exceeds your expectations, though there may be more and more that produces emotional responses because it fails them. Part of the problem is, as Woody Allen once put it (back when we didn’t think he was such a creep), that relationships are like sharks, who have to keep moving or they will drown. The better you know someone, the more they do what you expect them to do. But when someone just does what you expect them to do, you tend to feel less of anything at all: you habituate. Too many relationships that end, end because one or the other partner says “I just don’t feel the same about you.” Well, duh. Emotions are about breakdowns or slippages in expectation, and the more you know about someone the less likely that is. There are really two kinds of breakups produced by this decrement of feeling (never mind the ones produced by serious unhappy violations of expectation). The kind where the partners feel less about each other because they are living more and more independent and separate lives, where what the other does has less and less of an effect. Breaking up doesn’t change much. But there are also the kind where couples have become so interdependent that they are no longer aware how much they are. Then they break up and suddenly feel horrible as all the needs that were being met by the other no longer are. These are the couples actually served by breakups, which draw all this to their attention, and often get back together. It’s also behind much in the way of grief, when a relationship is truly ended. I remember, about a week after my father’s death, when my mother burst into tears one morning because there was no coffee made. She was the real caffeine addict, but it was my father who, perhaps originally out of self-protection, always made the morning coffee.

Now, there is certainly a positive side to all this habituating to regularly met expectations: the pressure to change and, hopefully, improve. When I was courting my first wife, I once brought her a dozen roses. She was elated. It was unexpected: indeed, it exceeded all expectations as no one had ever done this for her before. A good date night. So, when I bought her a dozen roses for our anniversary, she was happily reminded of our courtship. Another good date night. So, for our second anniversary, I made sure to stop by the flower shop on the way home. The roses made her happy, and we enjoyed a nice restaurant meal. By our third anniversary, I was a bit harried, and forgot to order the roses ahead of time, but found some after several stops. Her response “Well, at least you remembered.” We even had a date that night. But the next year, walking in the door with a smile on my face, and a dozen roses, she burst into tears “You just got me the damn roses again.” No date that night. Obviously, I hadn’t given it, or her, enough thought to do something new.

When people change, and grow, they will develop new skills and abilities, even new goals, and reset expectations, ideally supporting each other in taking on new challenges, or defeating new threats. But just as in the early stages of a relationship, where each new revelation runs the risk of derailing an accumulation of positive experiences, it is hard to sustain a continuous sequence of changes that are always appreciated by one’s partner, and one no longer has the suspension of critical capacities as in the romantic early days. There is a tendency in lasting, successful relationships (and I am not one of those that believe that a relationship is successful merely because it has lasted) for couples to not only sustain the expectation that “we will get through this, too” as they accumulate a corpus of challenges met and crises averted, or at least survived, but even develop the habit of trying to give their partner credit for their virtues, and their efforts, even when they fail. We can and do make each other better people, even if those improvements are constructed by each partner seeing things in the other that the other did not see, or perhaps, weren’t previously there. The rule of thumb is that the first seven years of any relationship are largely projective, where each partner is projecting their own idealized image of the other, hopefully also seeing them for who they want to become rather than who the other wants them to become.

I think, however, that in addition to providing help and support, and the comfort of being known well by at least one person, that intimate relationships are also the best, if not the only place, where we can learn so much about ourselves. It is a truism that one really can best, if not only hear about the things one might rather not know about oneself from someone with whom one has a relationship of support and trust. If my enemy, or even a stranger, tells me something bad I said or did, something I might rather not hear, I am as likely as not to become defensive, deny it, blame someone else, or even project my own faults onto another. But that is harder to do with someone who you believe has your best interest at heart. Your best friends aren’t just the ones who tell you what you want to hear, they are the ones who also tell you what you need to hear, even if you would rather not hear it. That’s also why interventions from beloved family and friends are what is necessary to overcome symptoms of mental health difficulties that may be the hardest to overcome, and the symptom which is preliminary to getting serious professional help, denial that one has a problem at all.