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Can You Ever Really Know Your Partner?

Recently, Karin and I received a letter from one of our readers. We are always grateful to hear from you all!

The question the reader asked was how, in the age of coronavirus, one could get to know potential partners if one got to know them only online.

Could one count on impressions made over the Internet?

So, here’s my answer.

Did you ever play a game as a child trying to figure out whether what you and a friend saw as the color red, or blue, or yellow, was the same?

Really, how do you know for sure whether your red is not someone else’s blue, and vice versa?

Is there any way to know?

The answer, of course, is not really.

We assume we all, or almost all (some people are color blind or have various color-perception deficits) see the same thing as red but we don’t know for sure.

The college-student version of the same paradox arrived for me in a philosophy course I took freshman year.

We read portions of a book by the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant called the Critique of Pure Reason.  Mostly what I remember is that it was about pure reasoning!

But I do remember one thing in particular from the book, maybe just one thing!

Kant argued that we never can know a thing in itself.  We only know our perception of it.

So we see the night sky but we don’t know that someone else, even standing right next to us, sees the same thing.

It’s the color paradox all over again.  We only know what our senses tell us, not what is actually there.

For example, the electromagnetic spectrum ranges from extremely short waves to extremely long waves.  But we see as colors only a very tiny fraction of this spectrum as colors.  What about the rest of the spectrum, some of which other animals can see?  What’s it look like?

Ultimately, we can't ever completely know someone

I mention all this because the same principle of not knowing for sure what’s out there applies to all love relationships, including but not limited to those formed over the Internet.

We never can fully know another person.

Perhaps more seriously, we never fully can know ourselves either.  We know only surface approximations.

How many times has your partner surprised you, perhaps even shocked you, with their behavior?  How many times have you surprised yourself by your own actions?

People THINK they know how their partner feels, but they are wrong

Some years back, a graduate student named Michael Barnes and I did a study investigating people’s relationships.

One aspect of the questionnaire we gave participants was to say how they thought their partner felt about them.

We had all the partners as participants as well, so we also asked them how they actually felt about their partners.

These are couples in relationships, so you would think they would know how their partners actually felt.

They didn’t.

The correlation between the two partners’ ratings was .30, on a 0 to 1 scale. That’s not a high correlation!

In other words, they had some idea of what their partners thought of them, but not much of an idea.  They thought they knew their partner and how their partner felt about them; largely, they were wrong.

The thing to remember, though, is that you don’t really know anything in itself.

If we could see the whole electromagnetic spectrum, or even a large part of it beyond visible light, how different the world would look!

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.

When I first met Karin, I knew that, in addition to an advanced degree in psychology, she also had an advanced degree in business.

But so far as I knew, she had left business behind to study and later to psychology.  But when we set up our website, there were a lot of decisions to be made about how to operate it.

I knew next to nothing about what to do.  Karin, however, became passionate about setting up the website and expanding it.  I discovered a whole side of Karin I had never seen before.

Similarly, I knew she had done martial arts before I met her and was a brown belt in judo.  But it never would have occurred to me that she would become a black belt in karate and simultaneously be going for a brown belt in Kung Fu.

So, every time I think I know Karin, I discover something about her I didn’t know before.

And here I am, writing about how you never truly know your partner.  That applies to me too, PhD in psychology and all!

And for me, that’s a part of what makes our relationship interesting and rewarding. I never know what I’ll learn next about her!

The point is that although you cannot fully get to know a partner or potential partner if you communicate only through the Internet, you never really get fully to know a potential partner.

So do not hesitate to form Internet relationships during the period of the pandemic, expecting that after this period ends, you will be able to meet.

You might want to expand the list of questions you ask, but you might want to do that anyway, even if there were no pandemic.  The more you ask about a partner or potential partner, the more you can learn about what they are like.

My advice: Go for it!

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