One of the biggest mistakes we make in love relationships is assuming that our partners’ experience is the same as ours and that events and behaviors mean the same to them as they do to us.
In the beginning of relationships, the illusion of sameness allows us to feel some measure of safety in the face of Toddler-brain vulnerability. To ward off the dread of failure (rejection and feelings of inadequacy), we talk ourselves into pleasant delusions:
“Our hearts beat as one.”
“We’re soul mates.”
“We’re so close that we complete each other’s sentences.”
“My partner really believes in me (not projections of me).”
“My partner really gets me (not projections of me).”
The illusion of sameness is sometimes disguised in the rhetoric of universal equality; we’re all the same, regardless of gender, orientation, race, religion, and so on, as if we marry a gender or race or religion, rather than unique individuals. Universal equality of rights, privilege, and opportunity is a laudable sentiment and a noble social goal that is much abused by those who confuse equality with sameness and who feel uncomfortable with differences.
The price of whatever safety and security we get from the illusion of sameness is an inability to see our partners apart from our feelings about them. As reality changes feelings, as it always does, we get stuck in the Toddler brain, where we blame our partners for each deviation from the illusion we’ve created. That is, we blame them for being individuals. We blame them for not being us. A great many arguments in love relationships can be reduced to partners insisting:
You have to be more like me, see the world the way I do, feel the way I do, think the way I do.”
There’s No “Me-Harmony”
The great irony of the illusion of sameness is that we’re most attracted to partners who differ from us. A copy of yourself dressed up to look like an intimate partner would be so incredibly boring that you might as well live alone.Differences are a large part of what attracts lovers, expands their world-view, and enhances their experience of being alive.
When You Truly See Your Partner, You See How Different You Are
Besides having different parents, intimate partners are likely to have different temperaments, different gender socialization, and different support networks. They will certainly have different experiences, different hormones or hormonal levels, and different trajectories to their emotional development. In addition, they’re likely to have opposite core vulnerabilities. (Estrogen makes us more sensitive to fear and testosterone makes us more sensitive to shame.) All of this means that events and behaviors are likely to mean something different to each partner.
Never assume that your partner has the same experience as you, even if you’re involved in the same events at the same time.
Empowered Love Formula
Appreciate as many differences as you can, accept the ones you can’t appreciate, tolerate the ones you can’t accept. Negotiate about specific behaviors, not character, thoughts, or feelings.