In many cultures, especially Western ones, people tend to put a lot of emphasis on love—and the sparks that first come with it. This means we meet someone appealing, which is typically initially driven by physical attraction and "chemistry." Then we fall in love, which leads to a longer-term relationship or marriage.
But sadly, relationships often lose steam, sputter, and suddenly, or eventually, fall apart. Is love, or lack of it, really to blame when this happens? One would think so! After all, when the relationship towel gets thrown in, we often hear freshly broken up partners say things like:
- "I just fell out of love with him."
- "We just drifted apart."
- "I love her but I am not in love with her."
- "I really thought I loved them, but that didn't turn out to be the case."
In my book, Why Can’t You Read My Mind? Overcoming the 9 Toxic Thought Patterns That Get in the Way of a Loving Relationship, 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.
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. My point is that many relationships have broken up and marriages have been torn apart not because the partners didn’t love each other but because they 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.
Understanding is putting yourself in your partner's shoes — and truly being able to relate — 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.
When you’re able listen, and I mean really listen, then you can more likely identify the emotions your partner is experiencing and expressing. This helps to understand why he or she is feeling a certain way, which helps you respond to their needs more effectively. When conflicts inevitably arise, and strong feelings get stirred up, knowing how your partner feels is important, and identifying how you each think and feel is crucial.
Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
Steven Covey, in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, wrote that "most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." All of us want to be seen, heard, and understood. If you love and don’t understand, you will have a lot of conflicts — more than normal. And once conflicts take over, you grow apart. The more people fight and quarrel in a relationship, the less love and attraction they feel for each other.
The painful reality is that love is just not enough. 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.
Knowing and Understanding Someone Takes Time
You don’t need to understand people to love them, but you need to understand them to build a lasting 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. 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.
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.
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Bernstein, J. (2003). Why Can't You Read My Mind?, Perseus Books, New York, NY