Knowing Too Much: The Epistemics of Intimacy
December 29, 2022
John A. Teske
After a long intimacy with someone, one has learned a lot, both about oneself and about another. Part of what you learn about each other are things not a lot of other people know, and even things of which you were not previously aware about yourself, that another now knows. When such a relationship ends, one needs to process, to think about, and to digest many things about both self and other, with oneself, as in therapy or journaling, but also with others close to you, both so that they know about and can provide essential support, and also for your own self-understanding, and your capacity to recover a sense of yourself apart from a no-longer significant other. But to what extent must one then truck with the boundaries of another, and the ethics of avoiding harm, and showing respect, for someone who you may no longer respect, and perhaps may have seen your respect for them, and they for you, erode over months and years, both before, but certainly also after, the termination of such a relationship. I remember, even in the months and years before our separation and divorce, writing “save John” in my journals, and in conversations with friends, as I believe I had lost, or surrendered, or acquiesced to giving up things that were important to me, and the sense of self I once had. My recent ex-wife, in a May – October relationship, was right that I had an adult “baseline” to which I could return, and she is “building a life from scratch.” The problem is that, after over a decade together, I think I still know her better as an adult than anyone else in the world, which may be true for a long time, and her protective and self-defensive boundaries (healthy or not) are threatened by my very existence and even sometimes, by my very presence. Sadly, I increasingly wonder how well she knew me at all.
The image above is of a Moebius Ouroborus, of Coral Snake (“red to yellow, kill a fellow) and a Scarlet King Snake (“red to black, friend to Jack), one poisonous, the other its Batesonian mimic, biting each other's tails. I once included this as a corner icon in every PowerPoint slide I used, for a talk on "Relational Selves and Redemptive Relationships." I was a college professor, who taught social psychology for 30 years, and even taught a research seminar on close relationships. I have long preached 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. You can only hear about the things you might rather not know about yourself from someone with whom you have a relationship of support and trust. Your best friends aren’t the ones who just tell you what you want to hear, they are also the ones who tell you what you need to hear, even if you would rather not. If an enemy, or even a stranger, tells me something bad I said or did, something I might rather not hear, I am as likely to become defensive, deny it, blame someone else, or even project my faults onto another. So, what happens when your significant other is no longer able to be your best friend, or your friend at all, and is increasingly becoming a stranger, to whose thoughts and feelings, whose personal narrative, one is no longer privy. Perhaps marriages end after seven years not just for the itch of novelty, but in flight from the truths a partner saw in you before you did, and perhaps had difficulty disabusing you of your denial. This is likely to be terrifying, and means your loving partner has more power over you than you might want, making you feel vulnerable, even “unsafe” in their very presence. What if you are no longer partners, or even friends, but you are quite aware that they know too much? Can you avoid making them your enemies?
Stephen Mitchell, in his 2002 book Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance over Time writes:
"For most of us, our romantic life, our romantic fate, the account of our romantic life, is a central recurrent narrative within the stories we tell others about ourselves, and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves to maintain a sense of who we are. And no romantic narrative, if it is to avoid degenerating into a fairy tale (and they lived happily ever after) is without pain, hurt, and loss. That is why the blues is such a powerful musical genre."
This was a quote I used in my original article on “Neuromythology: Brains and Stories,” hence its relevance here. My ex-wife was never much of a blues fan, as, while she liked to dance to classic rock and roll, she never liked the untrained voices and raw emotion of the blues. I did, and it was only near the end of our marriage that I discovered a YouTube of Beth Hart (who practically channels Janis Joplin) singing “ I don’t need no docktah,” at the Paradiso in Amsterdam a few years ago. My Ex even asked what my post-marital vanity license plate: “NO DOKTA” meant to me, as she thought it was too easily confusable with “North Dakota.” I just sang “I don’t need no docktah, ‘cuz I know what’s ailin’ me.” Like her inability to relate to the characters in a romantic comedy, “because I don’t have the experience,” I thought she really never “got” the blues because she’d never had her heart broken, never experienced what Son House defined as “the blues,” “You love someone, and they don’t love you back.” But, for reasons I will not share here, I think I did break her heart.
My topic necessarily includes my own recent personal experience, my hope that it might be useful for others to hear as it was for me to work through it. It is a reflection, and attempt at some compassion, for my ex-wife needing to sever all communication: “I don’t want you in my life.” After a decade together, from things she tells me, I can figure out others, many of which she is not ready to tell me, and because of which she feels her privacy violated. My conscious and remembered life, a decade of which was with her, is an ego-threat. If she could get a court order to have me lobotomized so I wouldn’t “violate her boundaries,” I’m sure she would do so. But even erasing all memories of each other, as in “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” may leave unchanged many things which attracted you to each other in the first place, even if the outcome is no less inevitable.
My six-year-old son was recently slapped by a little girl on a dance floor, for reasons neither of us could comprehend. At some point, when he is ready, I will tell him that if he thinks he can figure out why girls do what they do, he will never be happy. If he does, it will be worse.
As distance and time would gradually show, much of what my Ex would need to learn from “experience” would not be pleasant, and I would now have the perspective to learn much about her that I had either long denied, tolerated, or accommodated with varying degrees of rationalization or self-deception. But yes, I would now be free to “save John.” I got a financial advisor, replaced a computer in a day, contracted a better phone service, and began to disassociate myself from many things hers. I would also learn many things that would continue to lighten the tint of the rosy glasses of marital respect.
So, what is “Knowing too Much?” And how do you deal with an Ex that knows too much about you, not only in figuring out, from what you do tell him, five more things you are not ready to, but things you would rather not even face about yourself. Things which I still know, even if she doesn’t want to hear them, and can build a Berlin Wall of opacity in communication, concealing everything she can, because she knows I’ll figure out more than she wants me to, or even directly tell me things she later decides she wished she hadn’t. But as George Orwell once said, “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself,” so opacity ultimately entails self-deception, even to failing to tell me things that she should have, concealing them without conscious purpose, where thoughtlessness becomes cruelty.
There are things that are just telling, some loving, some just differences in character and personality, some laughably projective, and some that break my heart, but compassion, and a desire to avoid harm forbids their revelation here. None of them even touch on what I knew and what it meant to know her as David knew Bathsheeba, but there are lines I won’t cross.
There is a lot I don’t like about her, and much that I tolerated for years, and tried to be flexible, generous, and even willing to upend, uproot, and relocate my life. That was for my son, not for her. I am also sure that there are things that she knows that I would rather not have generally known, but I’ve been around the block before, and suspect there is little that isn’t available. There may well be things she knows about me I do not know, or hide from myself, but as she is no longer my friend, I probably would angrily deny, or defend myself from knowing them, as she does mine. There are also things I do know about myself, that she never did, and now likely never will. I could probably make a long list. You want naked pictures? That’s never going to happen. Like death and taxes, there are things that my generation takes as given, even if subsequent ones have catalogs of such things available somewhere on the Internet.
As my opinion of my Ex has declined over the years, I start to wonder why I stayed with her, married her, even had a child with her. Then I look at a dresser top covered with old photo albums of my life between graduating from Indiana University, through becoming president of my “primary identity organization” and running my first conference for them. I remember that my Ex never wanted to look at these, though there was more than one time I tried to share them. I still have several moving boxes under my dining room table of a large collection of blues and jazz I’d stored in an attic closet for a decade. I still have photos of the 1500 or more books, including the American and world literature that I was surprised to find composed a good third of my downsized personal library, and I remember packing the bins of her romance novels, and the single small bookshelf that was anything else. I think of my bicycles and the hundreds of miles of road biking I did, on which she never joined me, even when our little son rode on the back. So, I start asking myself how well she knew me at all.
We did enjoy so many things together, dining, wine-tasting, all the travel we did together, our long conversations, her laughter, the way she would sing when she was happy, and it is the dancing I think I miss the most. But I never did do the ballroom dancing, the salsa, the other more structured dances she always wanted to do, and even remember that much of her dancing did seem to include steps she had learned and practiced, even for rock and roll, though I did have my disco inheritance from graduate school. I learned to share her love for costumes, and worked on several ensembles over the years, including my pirate best, and shared her love for the Renaissance Faire, and costume parties. I even learned to enjoy playing board games with her, though I gave most of them back to her, and have returned to a baseline where engaging conversation is my preferred entertainment. “Love and laughter,” as she said in a Valentine, when we still had a “loving friendship.”
The processing time and effort of her deal-hunting and decisional maximizing seemed to require far more trading of one’s time for minimal financial advantages than I could ever pursue and ignored things like loyalty. She thought I was a "broken man" when me met, but I wasn't beyond my "expiration date," so I was a "good deal," too. When I told her that after we were engaged, I got my first validating punch in the arm. She has probably ended at least one of her subsequent relationships because it wasn't a good investment. While we score closely on “openness to experience,” she is almost entirely lacking in the ability to form and maintain a network of friendships. She’s certainly more the introvert than I am, but the attention and nurturance of long-term relationships is something she tends to cede to family. I find it second nature, and have a worldwide network of friends, many sustained for decades. Her “action family” preferences for constant planning and anticipating activities struck me as “mandatory fun” and undercutting much of the spontaneity, or the unencumbered relaxation I find enjoyable. She did try to be agreeable. She was not conscientious. When she said she would do something, I learned “flip a coin.” I did admire the intellectual confidence with which she’d jump into critical thinking or questioning, but sometimes “problem solving” is not the emotional support one needs. I took her to be a fast reader and book lover, though most of that was skimming romance novels for the hot parts, and maybe the funny ones; I did love hearing her laugh while reading. She often tried to get me to join her in business ventures for which we would never “mesh,” and which I knew I would hate, so abjured. I wonder if we might have lasted longer if, upon my retirement, she’d asked me to think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, rather than how I might “monetize” my skills. I never thought “togetherness” an automatic good, and she never understood that in the best of marriages, the partners also guard each other’s solitude So, I wonder how well I ever really knew her either.