Although many people might be surprised by the results of this study, my anecdotal experience as a marriage and relationship coach firmly backs them up. I have often shared my belief that the biggest problem most couples have is not what they don’t know about each other, but rather what they think they do know. I’m amazed by how often my clients – some of whom have been in their relationships for decades – are convinced that they know all sorts of things about their spouse, when in actual fact they don’t seem to have a clue. And although their cluelessness is obvious to me (and their spouse), it’s usually not at all so for them. In fact, as the results of the abovementioned study indicate, the degree to which they are sure of what they know is often a pretty good indicator as to just how off-base they actually are.
The study attempts to identify reasons why longer-term relationships might engender less knowledge and awareness – such as a decreased motivation to learn, a higher likelihood to assume knowledge, or a greater tendency amongst the “more committed” to feel the need to tell little white lies. I believe that all of these explanations are valid, but fail to nail the essential point, which is that we tend to forget that our experience is a product of our unique and personal perception of life. As a result, we generally equate greater experience with greater knowledge, but the simple truth is that no matter how convinced we are about the way something looks to us, we must never assume that it looks that way to the next person. If we truly understood this, we would feel a powerful combination of humility about our own perspective, and curiosity about how the world actually looks through the eyes of others.
I’m personally struck, not so much by the fact that people assume, but rather by the kinds of things that they assume about each other. I’ve come across husbands who are convinced that their wives don’t care about their own children, and wives who believe that their husbands are only interested in working them to the bone. I’ve even had people tell me with complete wide-eyed sincerity that their friends actually derive great pleasure from being difficult and uncooperative. It’s almost as if they believe that people wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say to themselves: “I think I’m going to ruin somebody’s life today!”And what’s even more astounding, is that they are often so enamored by their personal take on reality that even when their spouse or friend denies having those thoughts and motivations, they refuse to believe them!
Sad as it may sound, it seems that the basic assumption of innocence that underpins America’s legal system often fails to extend itself to our personal relationships, which means that when it comes to being judged, many of us are likely to fare better at the hands of an anonymous jury of our peers, than at the hands of those who supposedly know us and care about us most!
According to our sages, the Fast of Tisha B’Av* is meant to wake us up to the fact that the painful lack of holiness in our world, and the more than two thousand years of suffering that our people have experienced as a result, have all been caused by simple baseless hatred (“Sinat Chinam” in Hebrew). There is therefore no better time than now to reflect upon the simple truth that hatred stems not from people’s actions, but from our assumption of guilt regarding their thoughts and motivation. No doubt, there are people out there who are making poor choices and behaving improperly on an objective scale, but we must never forget that it’s our tendency to attribute hostile intent, and not the deeds themselves, that causes the anger, resentment, and ultimately the hatred that we feel within ourselves for our fellow human beings.
So next time we feel the urge to judge someone we know – be it a relative, co-worker or a friend – let’s stop and take a moment to get in touch with how frustrating it feels to be misunderstood and pigeonholed by someone else. Then we might just get humble enough about our own perspective to let go of our assumptions, and consider the possibility that the people in our lives are really no different than us, in as much as they are innocently trying to do the very best that they can – regardless of how things may appear to us.
Wishing you an easy and meaningful fast!
*The ninth day of the Jewish month of Av has traditionally been a day of catastrophe for the Jewish people throughout their history: The spies’ refusal to enter the land of Israel, the destruction of the first and second Temples, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, all took place on this day. Because of this, we observe a 24+ hour public Fast, which begins this year on the evening of Monday, August 8th.