If you’ve been in a relationship for a long time, you probably think you know exactly what your partner means when they say they don’t want to do anything special to celebrate their birthday or Valentine’s Day. Or maybe you think you know what that frown followed by a “There’s nothing wrong with me” means. But… is it really like that? How well do you know your partner? And, above all, to what extent is it convenient to assume that we know almost everything about each other? What if being convinced that we know the other person very well distances us, instead of bringing us closer?
Close communication bias: forgetting that we are two people
In 2011, a group of psychologists from the University of Chicago developed a very interesting experiment in which a person had to guide a complete stranger or a friend or partner to move objects that he could not see.
Against all odds, people who worked with someone close to them obtained worse results. How is it possible?
The answer is simple: they had a more self-centered perspective. That is, the participants overestimated the level of interpenetration and assumed that mutual knowledge would be enough to communicate. As a result, they sent more ambiguous signals and phrases to their friends or partners than to strangers and made less effort to put themselves in their shoes.
When we are faced with someone whom we think we know well, we base ourselves more on our own experience – instead of that of the other – so we empathize less and this gives rise to misunderstandings and errors.
The researchers called this phenomenon “Close communication bias,” which causes us to perceive our friends and partners as much more similar to us than they really are. We assume they know what we know and, at the same time, we think we know what they are thinking. That is, we believe that knowing someone is almost like communicating by telepathy. It’s like we forget that we are two people.
Obviously, this “mental shortcut” can facilitate communication with someone we know and with whom we have a certain complicity. There is no doubt that sometimes it is enough to look at our partner to intuit what they are thinking or feeling, but sometimes the bias of close communication also gets out of hand and becomes an obstacle that sabotages the relationship.
The intimacy trap
Familiarity can cause us to misunderstand the intentions and desires of our partner or other loved ones. It’s normal to think that we understand the person with whom we share our lives better than anyone else – and perhaps that’s the case – but even that knowledge is not free of ambiguity, misinterpretations and dark holes.
In the aforementioned study, the researchers also found that we do not even understand the meaning of ambiguous phrases better when they come from our partner. That is, we are not able to intuit precisely what he meant, compared to a stranger.
What is the cause of that?
When we interact with strangers, we assume that we will not understand them perfectly, which makes us more likely to ask for clarifications and be cautious when making interpretations. On the other hand, with our partners and people who are part of our circles of trust, we are more likely to accept our assumptions without even questioning them.
However, by imagining that we know what the other person wants, we miss the opportunity to ask and get valuable feedback. Those small, everyday lapses in understanding can accumulate, so that at a certain point we might stop relating to the person in front of us and simply react to the image we have built in our minds.
In the long run, these misunderstandings will make the other person feel misunderstood or even ignored, which can generate an increasingly larger gap. In fact, overconfidence in our knowledge of others can contribute to creating a chasm of misunderstanding.
The key to knowing your partner better and improving the relationship
To exorcise close communication bias, it is best to keep an open mind. We all evolve as people. Our priorities, ideas and desires change throughout life. Therefore, we have to stop assuming that we know the other well and stay attentive to the small signs to be able to capture this future.
Instead of thinking: “I know exactly what my partner wants to say,” we must remember that we have to continue discovering his complexity every day because he is a person in continuous evolution. We must let go of our expectations and try to get rid of the beliefs that we have built based on common experiences because every image that we have been able to form in our minds is a reflection of reality, but it is not reality!
And when in doubt, it is better to ask. It’s tempting to think that we can put ourselves in their shoes and assume their perspective, but psychological experiments show that trying to take the point of view of others not only affects our accuracy, but also leads us to trust our judgment more, which can lead to erroneous assumptions.
Believing that we know our partner as we know ourselves can lead us to fall into the fortune teller’s error, a cognitive distortion that pushes us to predict an outcome and act accordingly, without taking into account objective data or real probabilities.
Therefore, it is better not to try to guess what our partner might be saying and simply ask to corroborate or deny our interpretations. Questions like: “What are you feeling?” or “What did you mean?” should never disappear from the dialogue in a relationship.
In conclusion, be more cautious when making assumptions about what your interlocutor feels or thinks and do not imagine that you know what is going on in his or her head, based on what you know about him or her. That is the key to avoiding misunderstandings and making everyone feel truly heard.
Schonbrun, Y. (2024) How well do you really know your partner? En: The Washington Post.
Eyal, T. et. Al. (2018) Perspective mistaking: Accurately understanding the mind of another requires getting perspective, not taking perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 114(4): 547–571.
Savitsky, K. et. Al. (2011) The closeness-communication bias: Increased egocentrism among friends versus strangers. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology; 47(1): 269-273.