As odd as it may sound, in some respects, the more time we spend with someone the less we know them. Yes, it's true the after you've been married for 20 years you get to know your partner's likes and dislikes, favorite breakfast, sleep regimen, and flossing method. But there are ways in which we begin to define each other that keep us from noticing our partner's complexity and depth.
As Susan Johnson puts it "Every way of seeing is also a way of not seeing." As soon as we think we know our mate, we begin to miss essential aspects of his/her "being-ness." Indeed, some part of us feels safer having our partner neatly categorized. Many couples we work with get in trouble because each partner begins to develop a "narrative" of the other. ("She cares about her family more than me." "He's not interested in communicating”.) Once we convince ourselves that our partner is a certain way then we begin to hold back our vulnerabilities.
Couples get into the most serious problems when they develop negative narratives toward each other. In the negative narrative one person will increasingly see the other through the filter of his/her own judgments. All the behaviors which reinforce the narrative are emphasized and all the actions that the partner takes which do not support the narrative are largely ignored. So, a man may slowly develop a narrative toward his mate which says, "She's selfish, she always has to get her way, and she doesn't really ever listen to me." Each time she does something which fits this narrative he will say to himself "See there she goes again." But whenever she engages in a behavior which runs counter to his narrative he will barely notice.
All of us who are in a relationship of any duration will begin to define our partners in more and more restrictive ways. But even when our narratives are essentially positive ("She's kind" "He's loyal") we are still closing off the potential to see each other in new and expansive ways.
Each of us in our committed relationships needs to be more aware of how we restrict the ways we see our partners. Like the caterpillar who inquired of Alice - "Who are you?, " we need to cultivate curiosity about one another. Your partner is far more that you imagine him or her to be. One of the tenets of an Exceptional Marriage is to explore these edges of unknowing. There is wonder and mystery in our partners. Making space for creative and novel aspects of each other to emerge brings juice and adventure back into your relationship. We invite you all to ask your partner, "Who are you?"
Brian Gleason, February 2011