Relationship Help: The Power of Understanding

How do you demonstrate understanding in your relationship?

Feeling understood by a loved one is a central emotional need that arises out of another need—the need for connection and relatedness. But being in a relationship isn’t enough—you must have certain needs met by your spouse/partner for the relationship to work.

A large part of the marital and relationship conflict/distress couples experience has to do with feeling misunderstood and not heard. Breakdowns in communication frequently result from a breakdown in mutual understanding.

It is through empathic listening that understanding blossoms; and it is through egocentric listening that chronic misunderstandings take hold.

What is egocentric listening?

Egocentric listening places the self-ego at the center of the listening process. Whenever we feel the need to defend ourselves or we become defensive in some way, we are not fully listening to the other’s concerns. Instead, our self-ego is reacting to what is being heard with some form of: “This is unfair…How dare you! I shouldn’t have to listen to/deal with this nonsense!”; or some version of, “Well, what about me? You don’t always treat me so great!”; “I don’t complain, so you shouldn’t either…”

In the above examples, the egocentric listening is evident in reactions of anger, indignation, feelings of unfairness, or concerns about oneself (how is this impacting or going to impact me?).

What is empathic listening?

Empathic listening, on the other hand, arises out of concerns, compassion and sympathy for the other. And empathic listening is inherently attentive. It is your partner’s/spouse’s perspective that as the listener you are immersed in—not your own. Clearly, this isn’t always easy to do and requires ongoing practice (so don’t get down on yourself if you do not see yourself as a naturally empathic listener). In fact, it would serve couples (all couples!) well to regularly practice empathic listening.

I often observe couples interact and communicate in the following way:

One partner shares something important (about his/her day or about a particular relationship issue) and the other partner (the listener) responses with, “I understand.” And little else is said by the listener after this generic reply. This really misses the mark with regards to empathic listening. Saying “I understand” and demonstrating understanding are miles apart.

As the listener, your responsibility is to make the speaker feel understood, and you do this by communicating (by showing verbally and/or non-verbally) that you get your partner’s viewpoint (his/her unique perspective and all the feelings that come with such a perspective).

Relationship Help Action Step:

Set the daily goal to demonstrate that you understand your spouse/partner (that you understand and fully get something s/he shared with you, whether this has to do with the particulars of his/her day or a an ongoing issue s/he is struggling with or a concern about you or the marriage/relationship).

Remember, couples who feel understood by one another often feel emotionally connected and secure about the relationship.

Until next time!

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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