It’s very much like being in the middle of a forest yet unable to perceive it, for you’re totally focused on all the trees around you. Whenever you’re oriented toward what’s up close, what’s farther away will, at best, be a blur for you and, at worst, be totally invisible.
Or, looked at psychologically, it’s “hidden in plain sight.” So you’d have to pivot to your left or right to glimpse what otherwise eludes you. Even then, “adapting” your viewpoint can only allow you to see what might reveal itself to you.
What makes understanding our partner so difficult is that most people typically keep their deeper thoughts and feelings to themselves. Maybe because they want to avoid conflict, for subconsciously, any disharmony could remind them of still-charged abuses from their upbringing. Or maybe unresolved trust issues forbid them from sharing anything that might be weaponized against them.
Having pointed to this key couple's conundrum, I’ll expand on it. Here are 10 ways you can "miss" your partner, even if, technically, they're right beside you.
1. You idealize your partner, with the consequence that you’re oblivious to their shortcomings. Especially during the courtship phase of your relationship, when your partner has endeared themselves to you, you can either underestimate their character flaws or not be able to spot them at all. The cliche, “love is blind,” is most likely grounded in the conception that falling in love may make it impossible to see the beloved objectively, with the emotional detachment necessary to discern who they truly are.
2. You may take whatever your partner says at face value. As a further dimension of idealizing them, you can be disinclined to question what they tell you, despite its incompatibility with their outward behavior.
3. You may unconsciously view them as making up for the succor or support you never received from your caretakers growing up. Rationalizing (or what’s frequently called “motivated reasoning”), you may self-deceivingly convince yourself that you’ve found someone willing to freely offer what your parents weren’t capable of. And even though they really haven’t demonstrated this superior level of caring, you nonetheless fabricate evidence for your overly favorable appraisal of their motives.
4. You may overlook the signs about what is actually going on with them. Unless, that is, they’ve explicitly communicated it to you. It's not uncommon for people who are desperate to see their partner in a certain way to miss important signals. As an example, your partner might be seriously thinking about divorce. Yet if they haven’t clearly indicated the depth of their marital disillusionment, or your ego-related fears about its demise have blocked its possibility from consciousness, then until you’re served papers, you could remain in the dark about their resolve.
5. What you can’t accept in yourself, you may, unwarrantedly, project onto your partner. However unconscious, defenses are instinctually designed to safeguard a vulnerable ego. So when you begin to feel anxious about conflict in your relationship, it’s all too easy to go into angry, partner-blaming mode rather than recognize and come clean about your own role in contributing to its discord. Moreover, when you self-righteously attribute wrongdoing to your partner, you’ll regard yourself as the victim and deny any responsibility for the hurt you may have caused them.
6. To the extent you’re afflicted with unresolved trauma from your past, you can, unawares, perceive your partner as a threatening phantom of times gone by. Your reactive programming, generally solidified prior to reaching adulthood, can impel you to interpret their behavior in ways incongruous with their objectives. Subliminally reminded of your past, you can’t help but apprehend them distortedly. In some respects, never having evolved past your past, your negatively sensitized perspective can sneak into—and sabotage—your relationship.
7. You can misinterpret their behaviors on the basis of your own psyche—not theirs. Sometimes, a partner can have qualities you haven't encountered before. Anything alien to your experiential framework may be unrecognizable. So it can leave you confused. But, for better or worse, it’s only natural to create meaning for what, realistically, is beyond your purview. Thus your conclusions may well be arbitrary or prejudicial, reflecting your own personality considerably better than theirs.
8. You may not be psychologically minded, with the result that the way you view your partner is naive or short-sighted. Here you aren’t cognizant of factors that prevent your partner from acting as—given your own tendencies—you believe would be fitting for them. For instance, if you assume they could find a job that would help dig your family out of a financial hole but they resist doing so, their passivity may have nothing to do with laziness (your own simplistic interpretation) but betray an exorbitant fear of rejection or failure. And because you couldn’t tune into their anxieties and may have devalued them in the past, they may not be comfortable sharing their worrisome feelings with you.
9. When you harbor longstanding self-doubts, you may falsely attribute your partner’s failings to yourself. Directly contrasting with an earlier point, your partner’s shortcomings could unconsciously remind you of your own. And if so, you may be unable to see them as they are but, erroneously, as a testimony of your own failings. Ironically, you can end up taking ownership of what serves much more to identify them than yourself (a kind of “reverse projection”). This is all the more possible if your partner projects blame onto you for their failings, which they themselves neither recognize nor can accept.
And finally, looking at this phenomenon inversely...
10. If your partner is saddled with the powerful defense of reaction formation, they may unconsciously cover up their true feelings. This counterintuitive, self-protective mechanism, which camouflages your partner’s fearful or shameful insecurities, would compel them to conceal their actual feelings by conveying their opposite. Thus, a partner ashamed of their dependency needs might regularly proclaim their independence (while doing nothing to discourage you from performing all kinds of services for them).
Ways of Perceiving and Removing Your Problematic Blind Spots
Because written material on personal blind spots is almost wholly centered on how to overcome them, I’ve chosen to focus on gaining a better understanding of just why it’s so common, however compromising. Still, to round out this post, I’ll summarily list some of its most popular remedies. So if you, though selectively, relate to the above:
- Review your past—evaluating, understanding, and seeking to rectify the cognitively biased assumptions that now cloud your perspective.
- Rather than accusing your partner of malice or intentional wrongdoing, ask them what prompted the behaviors that have frustrated or disappointed you.
- Be more attentive to their non-verbal behaviors (i.e., breathing patterns and body language) to learn just what they signify, as well as how they may belie their words.
- Do everything possible to make them feel safer in the relationship, and so lower their defenses; that’s a prerequisite to get them to be more open with you.
- Ask them about their upbringing, specifically how their caretakers treated them. Their confusing, distancing, aggressive, or passive-aggressive behavior might suggest they’re still suffering from some form of PTSD.
- Lastly, if your blind spots seem impenetrable, think about contacting a professional who can assist you in identifying and extinguishing your misguided conceptions.
© 2023 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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Fletcher, G. J., Simpson, J. A., & Thomas, G. (2000). Ideals, perceptions, and evaluations in early relationship development. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 933-940.
Lewandowski, G. W. (2021). The 10 blind spots that undermine your relationship . . . and how to see past them. New York: Little, Brown Spark.
Real, T. (2012). The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Make Love Work. New York: Ballantine Books.
Tsipursky, G. (2020). The blind spots between us: How to overcome unconscious cognitive bias & build better relationships. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Pubs.