We like to believe that love is what keeps partners together for the long haul, but another quality may be even more crucial.
In many cultures, especially Western ones, people tend to put a lot of emphasis on love – and the sparks that come with it first. It means we meet an attractive person, who is usually initially driven by physical attraction and “chemistry”. Then we fall in love, which leads to a longer-term relationship or marriage.
But unfortunately, relationships often lose steam, spit, and suddenly or eventually fall apart. Is love, or lack thereof, really to blame when this happens? We might think so! After all, when the relationship is over, we often hear newly broken up partners say things like:
- “I’m just not in love with him anymore.”
- “We just took two different paths.”
- “I care for her/him but I’m not in love with her/him.”
- “I really thought I liked him, but I don’t.”
In my book, Why can’t you read my mind?I argue that understanding is more important than love, especially when it comes to intimate relationships and parenthood. We need to teach this to our children so that when they get older they understand how crucial a sense of understanding others is in forming authentic and healthy relationships. I have passionately emphasized the importance of understanding others in my writings and books on parenting and those that speak directly to children.
In over 30 years as a psychologist, I have never seen an adult look back on their childhood and complain that their parents were too understanding. And likewise, I have met many divorced people who still love each other but have never really understood each other. What I mean is that many relationships have broken down and marriages have been torn apart not because the partners didn’t love each other, but becausethey did not understand each other.
This type of deep understanding is called empathy. That means being more aware, sensitive and intuitive with the people we love. But understanding is not the only knowledge. Knowledge does not always lead to understanding and without understanding you cannot love someone indefinitely.
To understand is to put yourself in your partner’s shoes – and to be able to truly relate – is to be able to appreciate the reasoning behind someone’s actions. This level of understanding, empathy, is really 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 are able to listen, and I mean really listen, then you can probably do more identify the emotions your partner experiences and expresses. It helps to understand why he or she is feeling a certain way, which helps you respond more effectively to their needs. When conflict inevitably arises and strong feelings are stirred up, it’s essential to know how your partner is feeling and identify what each is thinking and feeling.
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 intention of understanding; they listen with the intention of responding. We all want to be seen, heard and understood. If you like and don’t understand, you’ll have a lot of conflict – more than normal. And once the conflicts take over, you separate. The more people fight and argue in a relationship, the less love and attraction they feel for each other.
The painful reality is that love is not enough. I work every day to better understand the people I love. The will to understand is very important. It’s not always easy, but a healthy love is reinforced by the will to understand. Love without understanding will wither 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 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 bad for us. I’ve certainly been quite guilty of that in some of my past relationships.
To say that relationships are difficult is an understatement. Relationships can be complicated and messy. Understanding other people’s emotions is not always easy, but not impossible. Emotions are at the heart of relationships and when you and your partner share understanding of these emotions, they slow down and do not overturn your relationship.
Not all relationships are meant to go the distance, but all relationships can flourish in healthy ways, understanding being the key ingredient, even more so than love. For a healthy relationship to thrive, love must be strong, but you also need understanding, which only deepens love with trust, commitment, and respect.