How Well Do You Know Your Partner?

You may think that the longer you and your partner have been together, the better you know your likes and dislikes. You may think that, but you'd be wrong.

When researching sexual communication this week, I came across an article that made me do a double-take. A 2010 study reveals that older couples who have been together longer are less likely to accurately predict partner preferences than their younger counterparts. The older group was comprised of 20 couples aged 62-78 years, who had been together an average of 40 years and 11 months. The younger group was made up of 38 couples aged 19-32 years, who had been together an average of 2 years and 1 month. All of the older couples lived together, while only 39 percent of younger couples co-habitated.

The couples were asked to individually rate how much they liked 40 food dishes, 40 movies, and 38 kitchenette designs, in an effort to measure highly relevant and minimally relevant daily information. They were also asked to rate how much they thought their partners liked them. Think of this as a kind of controlled laboratory version of the Newlywed Game.

I would assume that the seasoned couples who had spent 40+ years by each others' sides would crush the proverbial newlyweds at this task. But they didn't. At all. They were significantly worse at predicting their partners' tastes across all three measures. And incredibly, the measure of highly relevant daily information (food preferences) was the measure that had the greatest discrepancy.

In a Wired Magazine article, one of the authors, Peter Todd, is quoted as saying "That wasn't what we expected to find, but this evidence lends support to a hypothesis that accuracy in predicting each other's preferences decreases over the course of a relationship despite greater time and opportunity to learn about each other's likes and dislikes." This is yet another example of why scientific investigation is so important. It is not uncommon for the world around us to reveal patterns in nature and in human behavior that are downright counterintuitive.

Why on earth would partners who have made it work for so long know so little about one another's tastes?

The authors suggest a few possible explanations. Older couples may be less likely to notice that their loved-ones' preferences are changing as they age, since they think that they already know them very well. Also, after 40 years, most couples likely feel that their relationships are solid and that they do not need to worry about their partners' levels of commitment. Therefore, they may be less likely to pay close attention to one another. It is unknown whether couples in the older group experienced physiological differences that may have biased results, such as declines in hearing, vision, or general cognitive abilities and memory, since they were not explicitly screened in this study.

The moral of this study is to take the time to communicate with your partner. You'll likely be surprised by what you learn, especially if you two have spent a lifetime making memories together. There's always room to learn something new about the person you love.

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