Alone Together

We live with them and sleep with them, but do we really and truly know our mates? And should we know everything about them? Sociologists and therapists say the answers to these questions are not all that simple

Yuval Saar
Hagit Saad
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Yuval Saar
Hagit Saad

"I am absolutely certain that my husband is innocent," said Gila Katsav in 2006 when the suspicions against her husband, President Moshe Katsav, first came to light. "It's impossible. He's not the kind of person who would be a rapist. I believe 100 percent that he did not do the things attributed to him. I knew all three young women and believe me, and I say this sincerely, I have no doubts whatsoever. He is my husband, the father of my children. We have been married for 37 years. You get to know a person."

In December, when the verdict in the case was issued, Gila Katsav remained secluded in her home, and did not issue any public statement either in support or condemnation of her convicted husband. Did she know or not about what he'd done? Did she find out after the fact or persist in maintaining total faith in her husband? It depends whom you ask.

Egon Schiele, "The embrace", 1917, oil on canvasCredit: Egon Schiele

"Every woman knows just what kind of person she is married to," wrote journalist Na'ama Lanski in Israel Hayom. "[Women] all know. They know whether cash-stuffed envelopes are sometimes slipped into his pocket, and they know just as well whether his hands sometimes slip onto other women's intimate parts. Anyone who continues living in this sort of reality is a victim by choice. A party to a dubious deal. In return for a little false quiet and security, she is pressing the repression button, silencing her voice and negating herself."

What do we really know about our spouses, about the people with whom we share our lives? Lanski is certainly very critical toward Katsav, but in regard to the question of whether we really know our partner, she is reassuring. In her view, there is no way that we could just wake up one day and suddenly discover that our mate is really a monster. The romantic answer is that we know everything - or at least everything that matters. For these are the people who are closest to us, the people who see us in our physical and emotional nakedness, who are always there. But reality is a bit more complicated than that.

"I think that most couples have a fantasy about being one unit, and knowing everything about each other," says Dr. Sara Ivanir, an individual and couples therapist, and clinical social worker. "The fantasy is so powerful that it persists even when things accumulate, over the years, that don't accord with it. That's why, when reality is revealed to be otherwise, it is such a terrible feeling."

Why is there such a fantasy?

Ivanir: "It has to do with the fantasy that there is someone who knows me and totally understands me. It's a fantasy that's also related to the desire to not be alone in the world. It's also connected to the fact that people sometimes relate to their partner as to a parent. The emotional - and romantic - starting point is that everything is known, that nothing is being hidden from you, and therefore we're stunned when it doesn't turn out that way.

"Every couple starts a relationship with some agreement as to what they tell each other and what they don't. For the most part this is an unwritten and unspoken agreement, but there's a clear feeling about it. For example, a woman says she doesn't know exactly how her husband makes a living, and when she asks him he gives convoluted answers, or he seems very uneasy - she infers from that that it's some kind of illegitimate business and she doesn't want to be perceived as suspicious and prying, so she lets it go. Then a code is established, according to which important things need not be talked about."

Are there things that people need to know?

"Yes. For example, financial or medical issues. A lot of people lie to their partner about health in general, and mental health in particular. I had a patient who had schizophrenia and had been hospitalized for it in the past. She didn't tell her husband, and after the divorce she felt relief because she didn't have to live 'like a fugitive.' People also lie before marriage about problems in their families. Like someone who didn't tell his partner that his brother was in prison. These secrets always stand like a wall between the couple. Part of what goes into that choice is the partner's ability to deal with it.

Ron Mueck, "Spooning Couple", 2005, mixed media.Credit: Ron Mueck

"People hide a lot of things, but we're very different from one another in what creates the sense of a breach of trust. There are some people for whom the lie, and the shaking of the basic trust, makes them no longer believe anything the partner says, and this unsettles them even more than the betrayal itself. Other people will react very strongly to the unfaithfulness, but not to the lie per se. And someone else will say that the source of the pain lies in the violation of intimacy."

Can we truly know our mate?

"It's a matter of fantasies and expectations. A human being is a boundless ocean of happenings. At any moment something unforeseen can happen. This makes for endless curiosity between the two sides. Not to rely on something that I learned on the first day we met, but to be in a position of being continually alert, exposed, interested and curious about what is going on, and I don't only mean in terms of being suspicious.

"My advice: Always presume that you don't know everything. This puts you in a position of responsibility. But you also don't need to know everything. Every couple knows what's important to know and what isn't, and every [person who is part of a] couple knows what would be terribly hard for the other to know and what can be revealed. Sometimes it's paradoxical - for example, when a woman tells her husband, 'If you ever cheat on me that's the end for us, but don't even think about not telling me.'"

Is it possible to quantify who will be able to handle the truth, who will stay and who will go? To anticipate what people will be prepared to give up?

"People cannot forgive a revelation in connection with their mate that undermines something basic ... that touches on the point most sensitive to them. It varies from person to person. It's a very personal question - what emotional element the revelation touches upon, what feeling it undermines: Belonging? Security? Control over life? If someone grew up with doubts about basic trust, when someone commits a violation it will be a lost cause. The pain and severity of the reaction varies in accordance with the sensitivity of the point that has been touched upon.

"The question of whether to tell or not also has to do with a person's ability to live in peace with the information. There are people who will never be able to get 'the picture of the betrayal' out of their minds; they will always see their mate in this strongly fixed picture and will never be able to reach a point of forgiveness."

Imperative to change

We don't know everything about our mates, nor can we. Some people ask why we feel the need to know everything.

"Most of us live with denial mechanisms without which it would be impossible to function," says Prof. Eva Illouz. "People close to us give a lot of signs of who they are, and we insist on ignoring these signs. The denial mechanism may be vital to a shared life and to survival. I think that it is vital in order to be forgiving."

Illouz says that at the moments of revelation, we usually are not discovering a totally different person, but rather reaching a point where reality no longer allows us to activate a denial mechanism.

"The bottom line," she explains, "is that most of us are more skilled at denial than at concealing. Sometimes it's significant that we refused to interpret and understand the signs left by the person who was hiding something from us. This is basically what happens in most cases."

In 2009, Illouz, who holds the Rose Isaacs Chair in Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was given an unusual honor when she was named by the leading German newspaper Die Zeit as one of the 12 thinkers "most likely to change the thought of tomorrow." She says it is no wonder that in the modern age we can keep discovering new things about our mates, because we are in any event continually engaged in switching identities.

"Sociology sees a person's inner being as being shaped by the roles that he plays: father, husband, brother, professional," the professor explains. "And it's clear that we fill these roles with our personality and there is no difficulty in shifting from one role to another. At work I am one person, maybe a tough boss, and when I come home I'm someone else, maybe a loving father - and there is no problem with that. The discontinuity between the various forms of our identities, which is manifested in the different roles we play, presumes that we have the possibility of playing around with all of the aspects of who we are. The self is not continuous, and in a society where the workplace may be disconnected from the home, there's no difficulty developing other identities."

So we're all Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in other words.

Illouz: "Not exactly. That statement has a very strong moral significance and I'd like to neutralize the moral dimension. Modernity is characterized, among other things, by a multiplicity of roles and a frequent change of social contexts. The freedom and fluidity with which we move from one context give rise to a split personality. The possibilities for putting on a facade are much greater in this age. The entire fashion industry is based on this premise: We're constantly pretending to be something we're not. Anyone who lacks self-confidence or who comes from a weak socioeconomic background, can and is even obliged to hide this - in contrast to the Middle Ages when classes were distinguished by a distinctive type of clothing, and trying to pass as belonging to another class brought punishment. We're constantly learning techniques of how to look a lot better, the whole cultural system is based on disguise, and it's become much harder to identify the boundary. It's a lot easier nowadays to pretend in any area."

Illouz adds that modern culture also demands something else of us: that we change. The assumption is that everyone can change, must change, and that quality of life is a result of development, learning and self-fulfillment. "Every person must take seriously the possibility that 15 years from now his spouse could be substantially different: could 'find himself,' or come out of the closet, or choose to become religiously observant. In modern life there's a premise that didn't exist in traditional societies - i.e., that you have to be someone other than who you were in your past. Success is measured by change, by what we now like to call 'development.'"

People who decide to marry don't think that way.

"I'm not sure that I agree. The risk that a person will become something else is higher, especially when people marry young, but I'm not talking about necessarily becoming a worse person, but about going through personal change. If in the 19th century, what defined a person as good was a demonstration of stability and the upholding of promises and commitments, especially in the area of marriage and family - even if there were many who did not meet this criteria - nowadays, a 'good' person is someone who also displays the opposite traits: the ability to develop or change. He will surprise himself and others, even at the cost of breaking existing frameworks and relationships.

"Think about prenuptial agreements. This is a practice that is clearly meant to say that you can't entrust all of your property to this one person because you just don't know what will be and who he will be in the future. We can be totally in love and hope that it will last our whole lives, but another part of us knows that the divorce rate is growing from year to year. I had a close friend who was married for 20 years and then discovered one day that her husband was surfing gay websites. He explained that it was something he'd discovered about himself, that he'd come to understand it over the years. And you can't fault him - it's legitimate to discover something about yourself that you didn't know before."

So all of our expectations about marriage need to change?

"We have this expectation that before and after marriage we'll achieve a state of full knowledge of our partner. Clinical psychology has shaped this perception of intimacy and marriage, in that it posits that we must truly know ourselves and our mate - that a happy marriage can only exist on the basis of this full mutual knowledge. It's a model that's based on an accumulation of knowledge, but the truth is that often, at the center of the soul there is a black hole, an enigma, that is very hard to decipher."

Holding it in

When Dikla met Rami (not their real names ), he told her that he was a graduate of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. For years, even after their twins were born, this was a source of pride. But when she saw an ad in the paper for a reunion for graduates of that department, her husband gave all kinds of excuses of why he couldn't make it. She decided to surprise her husband - to make a reservation for him at the reunion and plan a whole romantic weekend in the north around it, but then she was stunned to discover that his name did not appear among the list of graduates. At first she thought it was a mistake, but she then discovered that all the stories her husband had told her for years were one big lie.

Rami admitted that he lied when they met because he wanted to impress her and afterward it was too late to go back.

"I felt like all of a sudden I didn't know my husband and I thought: What else is he hiding from me?," she says. "I eventually decided to forgive him. You don't break up 23 years of marriage because of something like that. A lot of my girlfriends told me, 'Throw him out,' but I don't think they understand that something like this could happen to anyone. I wouldn't suggest that they start investigating what their husbands are hiding."

Almost everyone suspects at times that their mate is hiding something from them. The attempt to uncover the secret can take the form of rummaging through a drawer or peeking at cell-phone messages, or engaging the services of a private investigator in the event of more serious suspicions. However, often it just takes the shape of wondering what our mate really thinks of us.

According to clinical psychologist Irit Kleiner-Paz, who has 20 years of experience in individual and couples therapy, this is where the problem starts. Contrary to the view that the truth will set you free, she believes that sometimes it is best to exercise self-restraint - not to start trying to interpret your spouse's behavior.

"Spouses have a tendency to analyze one another as part of the psychological discourse that seeps into the marriage. I consider this catastrophic, I don't even let myself do it to my husband," she says. "Within a spousal dialogue, this kind of analysis always becomes a weapon, an accusation. It's important to remember that there are feelings that we will never know about, and it's better that way: [feelings like] what does he feel toward me, what does he feel toward other women, what doesn't he like about me, about himself, about our life together. In a good relationship, there needs to be an ability to hold inside things like criticism or frustration. A bad marriage is often one in which too much is revealed - too much criticism, too many complaints or feelings that would have been better kept inside."

Doesn't that contradict the argument that it's best to let feelings out?

"That's a romantic notion that I take issue with. When you reveal feelings, fantasies, negative feelings, a difficult process begins in which the other party has to digest the hurtful information; there need to be good reasons for causing this kind of pain. If she's always frustrated by their sex life, this is information that should be revealed, because that could lead to an improvement in their relations. But if she's always frustrated by the fact that he's not that smart, or doesn't make a lot of money, it's better that she work on coming to terms with the reality and not hurt her spouse because of it. If the negative feelings are related to something that is possible to change, then they ought to come out. If not, it's better to hold them in."

Not surprisingly, there is a difference between the issues that men hide and those that women hide.

"A lot of men hide money issues - bank accounts or failed business ventures," says Kleiner-Paz. "The man is ashamed to admit that he can't support his wife the way he'd like so he starts taking loans, hiding the debts, and the woman finds out one day that her house is mortgaged. It can go on for many years. Men also hide children from before the marriage, and of course, various kinds of affairs."

Do men keep more secrets than women?

Kleiner-Paz: "No. A woman can't hide a pregnancy, but she can hide her shopping. She might stash her purchases in the closet and then take them out later as if they were always there. But there is cheating in both directions; nowadays it's more similar."

There's a difference between finding out something from the past, and finding out about something that is going on now.

"Finding out that someone has an inner world or secrets is a shock, even if it's little things. It's a shattering of the illusion of control. The crisis of trust doesn't necessarily have to do with the content [of the revelations], and the breakdown of trust can bring on a feeling that is similar to mourning: weakness, distress, crying, a feeling that the world is not the same anymore, out of control. Then comes a process of recovery and rehabilitation that also depends on the other party. It's just like being sick. Some people even need medical treatment. It starts in one quick moment and the healing process that follows is very slow. It also usually doesn't heal completely, it's hard to go back to complete trust."

'Intolerable uncertainty'

Is there a different model? Is it possible to live without knowing all? According to Prof. Illouz, we might be much better off taking a lesson or two from literature of past eras.

"In the literature of previous centuries, the characters fall in love without collecting precise information about the other person's psychological make-up," she notes. "The falling-in-love happens because the person belongs to the right social class and because he displays accepted moral virtues. The aristocrats chose their mates according to very general, unclear character traits and appearances, while the aspiration today is for very precise and detailed knowledge of the person's personality and physical characteristics. The problem is that the knowledge model only works partially because it doesn't help to predict well-being or happiness - for instance, because it is very hard for us to rationally define what affects our emotional well-being and to predict with whom we will have a good life.

"It's also hard for us to predict in the long run which character traits are desirable to us. For example, an adventurous streak in a man may be a charming quality during the first five years of marriage, but when it's connected to other traits like instability or judged on its own merits 20 years down the road, it can create intolerable uncertainty. We don't know how to make decisions that take the time dimension into account, we don't have the ability to predict how we will cope with something or react over time, and the time aspect is very critical. Even if we seemingly don't change, the time dimension has a very big impact."

So what should we look at when choosing a mate?

Illouz: "Look at how he treats other people. Of course, this isn't the only thing, because libidinal energy also has its place. There was a study that compared physically close relationships with physically distant relationships. Relationships that were conducted from afar, with fewer meetings, lasted longer because of the idealization. It's interesting, because in long-distance relationships the partners know a lot less about each other, but that's always what makes possible the idealization of the person's character. It's a lot harder to do that with someone you live with all the time.

"I think the model of intimacy that's brimming with information about ourselves and our mate hasn't proved itself. The desire for intimate closeness through constant self-exposure can eat away at relationships. There is such a thing as 'too much closeness.' If the aim is to preserve the thrill and the romance, then too much closeness does not contribute to that. I'm not saying that closeness isn't important, also when it comes to raising children. I'm just saying that it almost certainly hurts the ability to maintain the excitement."

So we ought to strive to preserve the mystery?

"Mystery is a very broad term. I'd prefer to call it 'deliberate distancing.'"

Does this substantiate all the dating cliches?

"It's awful, but true," laughs Illouz. "There are two basic impulses: thrill-seeking and comfort-seeking. We'd all like to have comfort, but it's a result of adjusting to new things. When there's something new, when we are crazy in love, the level of excitement is very high and it's hard to maintain it at that level all the time. When the level of excitement goes down, you arrive at comfort, but often it ends up as boredom. It's very hard to maintain that comfort level as something good, and when boredom comes, it brings with it the desire for a new thrill."

What's the solution?

"I'm not used to thinking about solutions; psychologists do that better than me ... The answer we give nowadays to the question of the meaning of life is often filtered through the accumulation of exciting experiences: whether it's romantic love, extreme sports, a fun vacation, sex clubs, movies or a Lady Gaga show. All of these are exciting experiences; there are many ways to shape a lifestyle and identity. Today, a large part of our feeling of being alive comes from moving from one exciting experience to the next. Boredom is perceived as a sign of failure. We have no cultural tools to cope with boredom, aside from creating a new exciting experience. This is the basic mechanism of the consumer culture. Our emotions and the consumer culture reinforce one another."

Still, in closing, do you have any words of advice to offer?

"Cherish your boredom," Illouz says with a smile. W



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