Thinking Out Loud

The Five Percent Rule

In intimate relationships we come to know the other in great detail—how they think, feel, what they believe, their quirks, preferences, etc. Knowing and being known is important to our sense of well being. The familiarity implies security. The relationships of couples demonstrate this like no other. The special bond of living together and observing and absorbing the world of the other allows a unique opportunity—an opportunity to feel, sense, and anticipate the behavior of your loved one. Couples often take pride in being able to finish each other’s sentences, sense when the coffee cup needs refilling. You can observe the tiredness in the eyes, the sadness in the sound of the voice. Their joy is your joy, too.

I’ve heard many couples in counseling sessions say, “I know you better than you know yourself.” Usually this is not meant literally, though sometimes it is. What is usually meant is, “There are times, I know you better than you know yourself.” There is probably some truth in that statement. Yet it is a statement filled with potential hazards. We can never know another as well as they know themselves, and we must always be humble enough to accept this truth. Although we can know more than anyone else about our loved one, we cannot know more than they themselves know.

Interesting research about very long term marriages, fifty years plus, has shown that there is genuine contentment and happiness. These couples report the importance of continuously learning about the other. In other words, as well as they know each other, there are always new things to understand and learn. To remain open minded and curious is what’s important.

Here’s the five percent rule: You may be right about your partner ninety-five percent of the time but if you don’t reserve the five percent of not knowing, you will harm the relationship. The ninety-five percent gives a false sense of certainty and security. The five percent keeps you humble.

It is better to listen from the position of knowing that you do not know everything and that you are there to better understand your partner. Call it being open-minded, beginner’s mind, or whatever you like. What’s important is communicating your true desire to better know the other, rather than assuming you already know what’s going on and why.

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