The stereotype of an old married couple is one where the partners are constantly finishing each other’s sentences. They have been together so long, they can predict each other’s orders at restaurants and guess what movies they will want to see.
At the same time, there is a nagging sense that this can’t really be the way long-term relationships affect people. People who have been married for years will complain about the presents that their spouses buy for them wondering if their long-term partner really knows them at all.
So, how well do couples really understand each other’s likes and dislikes?
This question was explored in a paper by Benjamin Schiebehenne, Jutta Mata, and Peter Todd in the April, 2011 issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology.
They compared young couples (generally people in their 20s) who had been together for around 2 years to older couples (people in their late 60s and 70s) who had been together for around 40 years. Each member of a couple judged preferences for about 40 examples of each of three types of items. One type (foods) was one that had high daily relevance. A second type (movies) a common but not daily part of people’s lives. A third type (kitchen furnishings) was low in daily relevance. Each person rated how much they liked the items and also how much they thought their partner liked the items. Finally, each person estimated the number of their predictions for their partner’s preferences that they thought they got correct.
As you might expect, the more frequently something is encountered, the more accurate people’s beliefs about their partner’s preferences. Overall, people were best able to judge their partner’s preferences for foods. They were least accurate at judging their partner’s preferences for kitchen designs. Their judgments about movies came out in between.
The more surprising result is that the younger couples were far more accurate at making these judgments overall than the older couples. So, couples who had been together for only 2 years were 5-10% more accurate at judging their partner’s preferences than the couples who had been together for 40 years.
The older couples were far more confident in the accuracy of their predictions than the younger couples. Thus, the older couples believed they knew more about their partner’s preferences than the younger couples even though their actual predictions were less accurate.
Why does this happen?
When studying a topic like this, it is hard to do a true experiment. You can’t randomly assign people to be in long-term relationships. So, it is hard to know exactly why couples get less accurate over time.
One thing that may be happening is that younger couples spend a lot of effort trying to learn about each other. They are paying more careful attention to preferences, because the relationship is new.
Older couples have already learned a lot about each other. There are a few factors that may affect the accuracy of their predictions in the long-run. First, the older couples may not notice changes in their partner’s preferences over time, because they are focused on what their partner liked early in the relationship.
Second, partners often compromise over things they do, and that can affect beliefs about preferences. For example, a man might like action movies, while his wife is not so wild about them. However, she might go to see action movies with him just so that they can watch movies together. Over time, then, he might think his wife likes these movies more than she actually does. In this case, her compromise has masked her true preferences. This compromise often helps couples to share each other’s lives, but it does influence the accuracy of perceptions partners have of each other.
One issue that has not been explored is whether being accurate is valuable. It is important that the older couples in this study had all been together for about 40 years. That means that these couples had successfully navigated the difficulties of long-term relationships in a world where 50% of marriages end in divorce. So, even though we think that knowing our partners accurately is a good thing, it is possible that something about what makes relationships successful in the long-term also decreases our knowledge about what our partners like.