Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Hidden Force That Keeps Couples Happily Together

Love waxes and wanes; here's the true glue that keeps couples satisfied.

Key points

  • We are erroneously programmed to believe romantic love is the sole key for happy relationships.
  • Relationships that lack empathy are likely doomed.
  • Empathy does not mean compromising yourself but it does mean understanding your partner's inevitable shortcomings and flaws.

Tracy and Antonio sat down with me for a couple's session and they were not in a good place in their relationship. They agreed that when they met four years earlier, they had really felt some seriously romantic sparks for one another. They recounted those early days together driven by physical attraction and "chemistry." At that time and for the next two years, they really felt deeply in love. But sadly, as is often the case, their relationship lost steam and sputtered.

Both Tracy and Antonio now felt their love fell apart and they sought me out to see if they had any future hope as a couple. These representative soundbites they shared reflected this negative downturn in their relationship:

Tracy: "I just fell out of love with him."

Antonio: "We like just drifted apart."

Tracy: "I love him but I am not in love with him."

Antonio: "I really thought I loved her, but I guess that didn't turn out to be the case."

Empathy Is Even More Crucial Than Love

Many relationships have broken up and marriages have been torn apart because the partners didn’t understand one another. This kind of deep understanding is referred to as empathy. This means being more aware, sensitive, and intuitive with the people we love. But understanding isn’t knowledge alone. Knowledge doesn’t always lead to understanding and without understanding, you won’t be able to love someone indefinitely.

The painful reality is that love is just not enough. This is clearly shown in a currently popular show entitled The White Lotus. It portrays a hyperbole of a dense, insensitive clod, Shane, who just can't seem to take the time to understand the emotional needs of his wife, Rachel.

I work every day to better understand the people I love. The willingness to understand is very important. It is not always easy, but healthy love is strengthened by the willingness to understand. Love without understanding will wilt like flowers without water.

In my book, Why Can’t You Read My Mind?, I make the case that understanding is more important than love, especially when it comes to intimate relationships and parenting. We need to teach this to our children so that when they get older, they understand how crucial a sense of understanding others is to forming authentic, healthy relationships. I have passionately emphasized the importance of understanding others in my writings and books on parenting and those directly speaking to children.

Do You Know Anyone Upset Because They Feel Too Understood?

In over 30 years as a psychologist, I have never had an adult look back at their childhood and complain that their parents were too understanding. And similarly, I have met many divorced people who still love each other but never really understood each other.

Understanding is putting yourself in your partner's shoes—and truly being able to relate—and it’s being able to appreciate the reasoning behind someone's actions. This level of understanding, empathy, is truly the emotional glue that holds all close relationships together. It allows us to slow down and try to walk in the shoes of those we love. The deeper our empathy, the deeper and healthier our love.

Understanding Takes Time

Often it is our need to be right that makes what others think and feel so wrong for us. I have certainly been quite guilty of this in some of my past relationships. You don’t need to understand people to love them, but you need to understand them to build a lasting healthy relationship. If you give yourself the opportunity to understand your loved ones, you will grow to love them even more. And, especially with our intimate partners, egos are what seem to get in the way of understanding.

To say that relationships are difficult is an understatement. Relationships can be complicated and messy. Understanding the emotions of others is not always simple, but is not impossible. Emotions are central to relationships and when you and your partner share in understanding these emotions they slow down and don't rock you or tip over your relationship.

Not all relationships are meant to go the distance, but all relationships can flourish in a healthy way with understanding being the key ingredient, even more than love. For a healthy relationship to thrive, love is great but you also need understanding, which then only deepens love with trust, commitment, and respect.


Bernstein, J. (2020). The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2003). Why Can't You Read My Mind?, Perseus Books, New York, N.Y.

Bernstein, J. (2015). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (2nd Ed.) Perseus Books, New York, NY.

Bernstein J. (2009) Liking the Child You Love, Perseus Books, New York, NY.

Bernstein, J. (2019). The Stress Survival Guide for Teens. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Bernstein, J. (2017). Letting go of Anger—Card deck for teens. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2017). Mindfulness for Teen Worry: (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications)

Covey, Stephen R. (2004), The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People: Restoring The Character Ethic. New York : Free Press,