All of us want to be seen, heard and understood. We especially want this from our partners. We want our partners to say, Yes, I am listening. Yes, I get it. Yes, I understand your pain. I’m sorry it hurts, and I am here. We want our partners to be interested in and to care about what’s happening inside our hearts.
Wanting to be seen and heard and understood are basic human needs.
In fact, one of the most common complaints relationship therapist Rebecca Wong, LCSW, hears from her clients is that they don’t feel this from their partners — even though it’s powerful and vital for healthy relationships. “Feeling seen, heard and understood leads to deeper intimacy and relational growth.” When we don’t have this, we feel rejected and like we don’t matter, which can fracture our relationship over time, she said.
There’s a pervasive (inaccurate) belief that understanding our partners means that we must agree with them. But as Wong said, “you can totally disagree.” Instead, understanding simply means listening to our partners fully and intently. It means absorbing what they’re saying. It means saying to your partner, “I think I’m understanding you. But let me check: What you are saying is…” It means staying with this process “until your partner has no need to further clarify their perspective, because they know you get it. Even if you don’t agree, you get it.”
Below, Wong shared suggestions on how we can “get it” and better understand our partners.
Be fully present.
When your partner is talking, you don’t need to do anything, said Wong, the founder of the research-based practice Connectfulness. You don’t need to try to fix the situation or make things better. “Your only role is to be another being for your partner to share their human experience with.”
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood,” Wong said. Try not to formulate your responses as you’re listening to your partner. This only keeps you from deeply digesting what they’re saying, and hinders true understanding. “When your partner feels understood, they will naturally reciprocate with curiosity about what you think and feel and you’ll have an opening to share your perspective.”
Avoid complaints and defensiveness.
“[Defensiveness and complaints] are toxic relationship patterns that prevent you from really connecting intimately,” Wong said. When someone critiques and complains, they inadvertently put their partner on the defensive, she said. It communicates to your partner that “it’s not me, it’s you.”
“So the trick there is to take some responsibility, even a small iota, a weensy tidbit — ‘I can see your point, I did say that I would…I need to…” It’s also helpful to tell your partner how you’re feeling and what you need. (More on that below.)
Manage your own stuff.
Interestingly, understanding our partners also involves understanding ourselves. “It’s hard to manage all the stuff that bubbles up and gets in the way of simply listening when you have a ton of feelings and needs prickling at you,” Wong said.
That’s why it’s important to slow down and spend some time connecting to your own feelings and needs. Wong suggested being honest with your partner when you need to do that: “I want to understand you but I need to sit with myself first, can you give me __ time?” “That will feel better to your partner than not being understood.”
To tune into your feelings and needs, pay attention to your bodily sensations. This helps you identify what’s happening to you internally, so you can then share it with your partner, she said. For instance, you might consider: “Does the hair on the back of your neck or arms prickle up? Is your heart racing? Do you feel flushed? Can you mindfully slow down your breath? What do you need to feel calmer, soothed and more secure?”
Understanding our partners requires patience on our part. It requires that we pause and don’t interrupt our partner or start formulating responses in our minds. It requires us to turn our full attention toward them. This isn’t easy. And it takes practice. But it also gives our partners a beautiful gift: the gift of being seen for who they are and what they need.
Couple talking photo available from Shutterstock