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The Shattered Illusion: Why We Misjudge Our Partners and How to Deal with the Truth

I was once talking with a friend who was (and still is!) an expert on love. He told me a story that stuck with me.

He had been married for many years to the same woman.  They had a good and in some ways what he thought was a great relationship.

Then one night they were talking and his partner said something to him that the partner obviously thought was no big deal.

But to him, it was the biggest possible deal.  (He never told me what it was the partner said, and I never asked.)  After that night, the relationship rapidly fell apart.  Not so long after, they split up.

What struck me as odd at the time and still does, and what struck him as odd too, was that one off-the-cuff comment caused him to reperceive the entire relationship.

The comment was the beginning of the end, even though it was never intended to be anything like that.

I might have dismissed the story as a one-off if I had not heard the same story, in only slightly different form, again.  It was not an isolated incident and happens more often than we'd like to think.

What are some comments that make us re-perceive our relationship?

It’s different things for different couples.

But usually the comment reveals something about the speaker that we never could have imagined was true of them. Maybe our partner reveals that they've ad an affair, spent money recklessly, or have kept an addiction hidden. Or they say something that we interpret as an utter lack of love or respect.

How can we misjudge our partner so badly at times?

How is it possible that we sometimes do not see people for who they really are? In relationships, there are several psychological mechanisms that may keep us from seeing our partner clearly:

1. Confirmation bias.

We hear what we want to hear; we see what we want to see.  As a result, the truth can be staring us in the face and we just don’t want to see it.  Many people get into relationships that all their friends warn them against, only to discover that their friends were right—they failed to see what they didn’t want to see, but that the friends saw right away.

2. Deliberate hiding.

It may be that a partner has been hiding something and inadvertently reveals it in a conversation (or someone else reveals it).  Or we may just discover it on our own.

3. Inadvertent nondisclosure.

A partner fails to disclose something because they think it’s not relevant to the other.  But the other not only thinks it’s relevant, but also fatal to the relationship. Perhaps it is some past act, or perhaps something going on in the present that one just cannot live with.

4. Our love stories influence what we see.

We perceive love only through our stories.  As Immanuel Kant stated, we never can know a thing (or a person) in itself.  The result is that we are constantly filtering what we see and hear to correspond to the story we have created or want to create about someone.  It may be that we think a certain story applies—we really want that story to apply--and then the knowledge comes crashing down on us that the story doesn’t apply at all, and that a much less desirable story applies instead.

5. We  believe that our partner wants what we want.

This one comes back to the three core components of love -- intimacy, passion, and commitment. For example, we may really want to believe that we can trust our partner (high intimacy) or that we are our partner's exclusive partner (high passion) or that our partner is fully committed us(high commitment). It then turns out not to be true.

There are no doubt other factors that can lead to the feeling that one has been living the “grand illusion,” but these are some of the common ones.

What to do when you're faced with an unpleasant truth about your partner

What can you do when you are confronted with the feeling that you’ve been all wrong all the time?

1. Talk it out.

Maybe you’re wrong or you're misinterpreting what was said.  Maybe you’re taking a remark out of context or  what you're hearing is playing into some kind of paranoid fantasy you have. Give it a try and talk to your partner.

2. Seek couple’s therapy.

Sometimes, talking with someone who is not emotionally involved in the relationship can help. See if a licensed therapist or counselor can help you. Or go to talk to your pastor together if your pastor is trained in working with couples.  That said, don’t have friends mediate because they most likely won’t be competent to serve in that role and they may not stay friends!

3. Take it on the chin.

Can you maybe live with what you heard, after all?  No one is perfect, not your partner, not you.  Are you sure that what you heard is all so destructive as you thought it was? Don't react right away and give it some time; see what you think about your partner after your initial emotional reaction has cooled down.

4. Can your partner change?

You found out something that really bothers you about your partner. But maybe your partner is willing to make a change. Or maybe they're willing to meet you halfway. Try to see if you can make things work. 

5. Shape the relationship.

If your partner can't change but you're really bothered by something, you may need to reconsider the structure of your relationship. Can you find some way of being on good terms, even though things are not as you thought? For example, if you find that your partner has a gambling addiction, you may need to take charge of your family's finances even though you never had an interest in being involved in financial issues.

6. Leave.

If none of the above solutions work, you may have to do what my friend did—leave. Many problems can be worked out but not all.  If the problem is insurmountable, you just may have to move on in your life.

Some problems are truly insurmountable. But before labeling a problem as such, try the other solutions first.  You may just find a way to salvage the relationship, or at best, learn from what happened and make your relationship grow to become even better!

Are wondering if you can trust your partner and would like some more pointers as to which questions to ask and what to be mindful of? Read on here.

For those of you eager to learn how to build or rebuild trust with your partner, check out this video I made for you packed with invaluable strategies and practical insights.

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