Knowing Your Partner Is Most Important, Regardless of Exactly HOW You Get That Information

a hawk on a fencepost
Image by Jim Bahn / CC BY

A month ago, I published an essay called “Not All Romantic Gestures Look the Same,” in which I revealed something a little strange I do out of love:

My partner is definitely not a morning person. He needs a bit of time to warm up before he’s ready to people. This tendency is particularly marked (at least from my point of view) because he’s also an introvert.

Normally on the weekdays, he’ll set an alarm and head out to the office bright and early. About half of the time, I’ll sleep in later than him (since I work at home and have a pretty flexible schedule). The other half of the time, I pretend I’m sleeping.

Yup. There are times where he’s walking around, showering, getting dressed, packing his lunch, making himself tea, and I am lying in bed pretending I’m still asleep. If my brain is particularly active, I’ll surreptitiously read a book or mess around on my phone or something.

I do this so he’ll still have his alone time in the morning. Time to warm up before he has to socialize. I figure if he thinks I’m asleep that he’ll feel zero pressure to talk to me or “be polite.”

And I won’t have to sit there mutely feeling like I’m in his way.

On the weekend, I’ll often do the same thing, linger behind in the bed after he leaves the bedroom, reading.

Giving him a head start.

I got a lot of feedback on that post. Some of you thought it was incredibly romantic and thoughtful.

And a bunch of others of you united on a different theme: You told me to cut it out. That it was unnecessary. And that I should just make him coffee and be quiet and everything would be fine. That my partner would not mind.

I Apparently Came to the Correct Conclusion Via Observation

After the piece came out and a bunch of comments trickled in, I checked in with my partner about this second camp, the ones who thought I was being silly and doing something unnecessary.

I had to check because as I’ve noted many times he’s not much of a talker, and even though we get along swimmingly, he doesn’t necessarily volunteer information about himself without being asked directly first.

“I mean, I guess that’s what you’d do in a standard situation with a lot of other people, just make them coffee and be quiet,” I explained. “But the way you work, with how observant you are, with how aware you are of what other people are doing around you, you’d end up watching me and analyzing me, whatever I was doing, no matter how quiet I was being. And it would be a strain on you because of that. Just the atmospheric heft of having me there physically and your monitoring my body language.”

He thought about it and agreed. “You’re right.”

I told him that I didn’t think he could turn it off, how observant he was. He smiled and didn’t reply. Back when we were first dating, I would have been more confused by that. But I immediately registered it as agreement, this particular smile.

Well, I thought, he’s rubbed off on me. That’s odd. I just read into his body language and felt confident about what I saw there.

And as I thought on it more later, it dawned on me that that’s how I knew that pretending to be asleep would be the best thing to do in the first place, rather than something more traditional and sensible — like drinking coffee and being quiet.

He never told me that. Or anything that could have easily led me to that conclusion. I’ve just observed over the years how much he monitors me and everyone around him. How much energy that does seem to take for him. And drew my own conclusions — apparently correct ones (even if they sounded weird or unnecessary to some others).

My Partner is Wildly Observant and Very Sensitive, Even Hypervigilant

It’s an odd reversal of sorts for me… as I’ve written in the past, I very much prefer direct communication. And in some ways, dating my partner has been challenging because he so often works in indirect spaces. It’s not dishonesty, you see, but subtlety.

The toughest thing for me to get used to was how much he responds to things I’m not saying but things that I’m doing, faces that I’m making, my body language — even when we’re not interacting and those actions are not intended for him. It’s honestly caused occasional problems over the years, when I’d sigh reading a disappointing news article that has literally nothing to do with him and his brain weasels would jump to assuming I’m about to engage in relationship testing or be passive-aggressive.

In those moments, it doesn’t matter that I have no history of being like that. That all I’ve ever done has been to support him as a vigorous advocate. That I view us as always being on the same team. Or that I adore him and trust him and have no problem telling him when I have actual issues I want to address with him.

No, he’s been trained by past relationships to be hypervigilant, constantly on the lookout, attempting to read my mind for unvoiced expectations or emotional traps. I am not them of course, those people who used to trap him and test him. But his amygdala, the fear center of his brain, well… it doesn’t know that.

There’s a security system active that neither of us can turn off. Even though he’s safe now. (Because of how I grew up, I get it and accept it.)

He is extraordinarily sensitive — and I mean that in the sense that he’s observant to the slightest shifts of mood. That he’s attuned to external sensory information in a way that amazes me. He is attentive to my behavior and movements even when I’m chilling. Doing my own thing in the same space. Not even thinking of him. Absorbed in something else.

He Places Extraordinary Pressure on Himself That I Feel Is Unnecessary

He places extraordinary pressure on himself to hear every word when he’s in conversation with me — even when I don’t mind repeating myself or even care if he listens to what I say (I grew up primarily surrounded by people who didn’t listen to what I said anyway and were mostly waiting for their turn to speak).

And if I’m being honest, it seems like he’s constantly testing himself in ways that I would never. Comparing himself to what I find to be unrealistic standards. And becoming agitated if he fails to meet them.

But again, I don’t know for sure. Because I have learned most of what I know about him from observing. Words never quite say what he wants to say when he speaks his mind — and it’s easy for followup questions to become intrusive or frustrating.

I’ll be clear: I dislike having to guess. But I do it. And it would appear that I’m doing okay with it.

Frankly, if I could wave a magic wand, I would eliminate his need to put so much pressure on himself.

But I can’t do that.

And He Is Wonderful, Absolutely Freaking Wonderful

Now, speaking over this one aspect of him, I may sound frustrated. That’s because I certainly have been. Primarily it’s torn me up to see him put so much pressure on himself to be an ideal partner in ways that I don’t define such a thing. In ways that frankly to me seem unrealistic.

But I’ll be clear: He’s a tremendous partner. We have an amazing amount of fun. And I love him endlessly.

He is WONDERFUL. Absolutely Freaking Wonderful.

Sometimes “The Rules” Don’t Apply

Looking through one lens, it would be very easy to be negative. To jump up and say, “Excuse me, no relationship can ever work without open, honest communication.” And while behavior is considered communication by some  experts, which would mean that observing the behavior of a partner could technically fit the bill, this is typically not what people mean when they say this.

They are usually talking about direct verbal communication. Being transparent about one’s intentions, feelings, and past, present, and future actions using words.

They are not talking about consistently monitoring your partner and drawing conclusions based on educated guesses. (This is often perilously close to mind-reading games.)

And honestly, indirect communication is not what I want from a relationship… in theory. I’ve been in ones in the past where we didn’t communicate directly (and in ones where we didn’t communicate honestly), and it was awful.

And yet, I have this one odd case that stares me directly in the face every day contradicting that general pattern. Because we work. And work so damn well. This relationship is incredibly fulfilling, nourishing, and deep.

But going by “the rules,” we shouldn’t work. (Actually, going by a lot of “the rules,” we shouldn’t have worked — more on that in a later post.)

But we do. We have been together for a decade now, and we’re still intensely compatible and happy.

Knowing Your Partner Is Most Important, Regardless of Exactly HOW You Get That Information

So I’m forced to see things through another lens — and to realize that there’s another way of looking at this that makes a lot more sense. That the reason why open, honest communication is important is that we can only have a healthy relationship if we really know our partner. Normally, the way you get to knowing your partner is through open, honest communication.

But it would seem that every so often you’re able to get there a different way. And in my case, it seems like we’ve gotten there primarily through (coincidentally) shared values, spending time together, and carefully observing one another.

And it would also seem — rather disturbingly — that I — a notoriously unobservant person with no visual imagination and limited spatial intelligence who easily gets lost in her own head — have managed to learn another person well this way, by observing them, instead of my usual mainstay: direct communication and words.

It seems that he’s taught me something important: Knowing your partner is what’s most important, regardless of HOW you get that information.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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