Your Wife Does Understand You

In a prospective study among 199 newlywed couples, partners’ self-reported and perceived understanding and their knowledge in different domains were assessed. Understanding was independent of knowledge. Self-reported and perceived understanding predicted relationship well-being but neither type of knowledge did. Thus, subjectively feeling that one understands and is understood by one’s partner appears to be more important to relationship well-being than actually knowing and being known by one’s partner.

Women who roll their eyes at hearing “My wife doesn’t understand me” already know this:

In a prospective study among 199 newlywed couples, partners’ self-reported and perceived understanding and their knowledge in different domains were assessed. Understanding was independent of knowledge. Self-reported and perceived understanding predicted relationship well-being but neither type of knowledge did. Thus, subjectively feeling that one understands and is understood by one’s partner appears to be more important to relationship well-being than actually knowing and being known by one’s partner. (more; HT Rob Wiblin)

Men who roll their eyes at “He just makes me laugh” know something similar.  We like some folks and dislike others, these feelings change over time, and for the most part we just don’t know why.  So we make up vague socially-acceptable reasons, like “understands me” or “makes me laugh.”

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  • http://www.uncrediblehallq.net/ Chris Hallquist

    Here, couldn’t “understanding” be code for something like “willingness to listen emphatically”? I’d be surprised if “understands” didn’t track pleasant interactions between couples, or if “doesn’t understand” didn’t track unpleasant ones. (Who doesn’t come away from an argument where the other person won’t acknowledge your point without feeling the person didn’t understand your point?)

    Similarly, I think certain readers of this blog would tell you that there is a fair amount of consistency in what kind of conversation by men makes women laugh, and that women tend to be attracted to guys who can provide that kind of conversation.

  • Larry

    Men who roll their eyes at “He just makes me laugh” know something similar. We like some folks and dislike others, these feelings change over time, and for the most part we just don’t know why.

    Roissy has some insights into why women like some guys and not others.

  • http://robertwiblin.wordpress.com Robert Wiblin

    “My wife doesn’t understand me” is definitely a better excuse for leaving her than “My wife is old now and not very fertile or attractive” in the public’s eyes.

    Interesting that such empty phrases are given any credibility at all.

    • http://meteuphoric.wordpress.com/ Katja Grace

      Do you always presume others are lying if they claim motives other than those you think you have, or is there special evidence in this case?

      • http://robertwiblin.wordpress.com Robert Wiblin

        Special evidence in this case is the study above.

        Question is why something that reflects well on you and is easy to say (hard to check) would be accepted. Almost everyone should say those things so the proportion telling the truth should be diluted.

  • Psychohistorian

    ‘We like some folks and dislike others, these feelings change over time, and for the most part we just don’t know why. So we make up vague socially-acceptable reasons, like “understands me” or “makes me laugh.”’

    Wait, doesn’t this article point in the exact OPPOSITE direction, namely, whether we get along with partners actually does depend specifically whether people understand us, not on “some vague, socially acceptable reason?”

  • Unnamed

    The paper is here.

    To summarize the method, newlywed couples were asked how well they felt they understood each other (how well you understand your spouse and how well your spouse understands you) and they had their knowledge of each other measured (by comparing what you say about yourself with what your spouse says about you, on various questions). About nine months later, they were interviewed again and asked about how well their relationship was going (these relationship quality questions were also asked during the first interview). Couples who claimed that they understood each other at time 1 reported better relationships at time 2 (even after controlling for time 1 relationship quality); accurate knowledge at time 1 was unrelated to the other variables. They used this two-stage experimental design to try to support a causal claim that felt understanding leads to a better relationship; Robin’s explanation puts the causal arrow in the other direction.

    I think the most likely explanation is something like what Chris Hallquist says: the feeling that you don’t understand each other is typically a consequence of arguments and conflicts, and conflict leads to bad (and deteriorating) relationship quality.

  • noematic

    Perhaps ‘understand’, as it refers to partners’ subjective feeling that they understand each other, really means ‘acknowledge and validate.’

    However, admitting to requiring acknowledgment and validation in a relationship would tend to show some weakness in one partner, or a lack of faith in the other partner or the relationship.

    In contrast, ‘understanding’ is a conveniently fuzzy concept, referable to some inherent quality in a person, which is more difficult to reveal as arbitrary or weak.

    • Jess Riedel

      Yea, I’ve never interpreted “Alice understands Bob” to mean that Alice would do well on an exam (a la the study) about Bob’s life goals or favorite meals. I interpret it as “Alice knows how to get along with Bob”, which includes all the little social maneuvers which are hard to define and which Alive may not even be able to articulate. But maybe I’m just coming up with this after the fact.

  • HappilyMarried

    We like some folks and dislike others, these feelings change over time, and for the most part we just don’t know why. So we make up vague socially-acceptable reasons, like “understands me” or “makes me laugh.”

    You are way off on this. Those feelings may be vague and hard to quantify, but they aren’t just phony rationalizations.

    Men want wives that believe in their dreams and ambitions, and can listen empathetically. I suspect the study failed to capture this.

  • http://meteuphoric.wordpress.com/ Katja Grace

    There are two common meanings of ‘understand someone’.

    1. Knowing the causal pattern behind their behaviour. For instance knowing that their desire to talk to you about their work is prompted by insecurity about whether you care.

    2. Knowing what it is like to be in their situation and behave as they do, so be able to imagine it from their perspective i.e. ‘can empathise’. For instance knowing what it is like to feel insecure and to try to drag a topic to being about you.

    Neither of these are the same as knowing about someone, which usually just means being aware of their behaviour.

    When anybody says their partner doesn’t understand them they mostly mean definition 2. As far as I know, nobody means ‘is aware of my behavior’.

  • http://meteuphoric.wordpress.com Katja Grace

    Robert,

    The study above hardly says that ‘understands’ is an empty phrase – it just says that it’s different to ‘knows about’. As it is commonly understood to mean something different, this is hardly a shock. e.g. compare ‘I understand the financial crisis’ to ‘I know about the financial crisis’.

    The expression is used outside of relationships a lot, almost always to mean ’empathise’. e.g. ‘I don’t understand kids these days’ or ‘you just don’t understand people’ do not pretend to mean that the person doesn’t know how kids or people behave.

    Whether you should trust people on things you can’t verify is a different question. It depends on how many people you expect to genuinely have the characteristic, how many people have other characteristics they would want to disguise that way, and what proportion of those would do it. Here I think there should be so many in the first category that the claim is far from empty.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Katja, I agree that being able to see thing from others’ point of view is not the same as knowing things about them. But for people who have had a lot of contact with each other, it is suspicious to have to posit that there is no correlation between the two.

  • Buck Farmer

    First, “understand” often gets used to connotate “i agree with,” as in “I don’t understand why she did that” or “I don’t understand how he could”…we’re expressing that there are no arguments we can think of that would justify the actions to us. In this context, “to not understand” someone is to disagree with them, which seems like a reasonable thing to be upset about.

    Second, hear hear to “we like some folks and dislike others, these feelings change over time, and for the most part we just don’t know why.”

    I have always found this true for myself and found that people who can point to specific criteria or an ideal type are typically either signaling about themselves or trying to receive social approbation to pursue or not pursue someone.

    At the moment, I am still searching for patterns in my own inexplicable attraction to some people and lack of attraction to others. Except for crude ones like ‘physical health, fitness, and symmetry’ it is tricky, subtle, and difficult to articulate. Only faith would give me the idea that I have a consistent type, and I’m a skeptic so faith isn’t helping.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    “Understanding was independent of knowledge.” What does that mean? This seems to be misleading misuse of the word “understanding”.

    Did they mean “perceived knowledge” every place they said “understanding”?

  • Whatajoke

    This study seems to be deliberately obtuse. Let’s take all situations where language is used imprecisely to suggest something that’s well known but different from the literal interpretation of the words and PROVE that the literal interpretation is inaccurate. WoW! Next we’ll show that “I’ll love you forever” is commonly said even by couples who go on to get a divorce. And then we’ll learn that women don’t want to know the truth when they ask “Do I look fat in this?” Finally we’ll study how men who insist they only love their wives and wouldn’t look at other women will pay more attention to a photo of a hot chick than a photo of a plain one.