To know someone and to be known by the other is the essence of true love. This intimacy needs to grow in a healthy relationship. A hindrance to good listening in marriage is fear of hearing the other’s true feelings. It is helpful to keep in mind that we can’t change our loved one’s world –past, present or future. If we can rest in that, we can develop the courage to listen, ask probing questions and seek to know the heartfelt needs of the other.
The components of understanding, trust, empathy, freedom to be vulnerable, respect, forgiveness and
grace need to be part of a growing love relationship. We are not able to be perfect in these qualities, but
we can work on developing them.
1. Understanding my spouse means that behind her words or behaviors I see meaning that is unique to her. That meaning encompasses a felt knowledge* of my spouse’s past accomplishments and sorrows. It is realizing that her present perceptions have roots in her history of disappointment, losses and joys. To be understood is a primary human need and to understand another is a true gift of love. Understanding our spouse’s history helps us to have empathy for his weaknesses. Maybe your spouse is critical of others, including you. Usually when someone acts critically, it is because he suffers with shame or inferiority. Criticism of others is a defense against feeling diminished or not good enough. Being understood gives
courage to be more authentic in communicating.
2. To trust someone is to seek to believe in that person, to identify trustworthy characteristics and to seek reassurance when you feel doubt. Trusting is making an investment in another and expecting trustworthiness. It is seeing the good in the other. Trust means that you care about what causes the other person happiness and pain. Trust involves truthfulness and transparency. Trust means you treat your spouse as worthwhile and valuable. A baby develops trust when the parent responds to his constant need for attention. Some people might say that trust means knowing that my partner will not be unfaithful to me. The deeper meaning is that the partners share beliefs in faithfulness and are motivated by these beliefs and do not want to cause the other the pain of betrayal.
3. Empathy means to be daily thinking about how your spouse experiences life. This is a deep experiencing of the other’s emotional world considering his or her sense of peace, joy, shame, despair, fear, worry, anxiety, depression, sadness or anger. My spouse has empathy for me when he wants to know about my fear of disapproval even if he might wonder why I would have these worries. He accepts my emotions without feeling the need to change my mind. Our experiences are different; knowing another in intimacy is learning about his or her experiences that have contributed to his view of the world.
4. Freedom to be vulnerable means to feel safe enough with my spouse to share my innermost fears about life without feeling judged or criticized. A therapist wants his counselee to process innermost fears even when these may not be representative of how the counselee always feels. What hurts on one’s worst day can be the doorway to realizing unconscious hurts and problem-
solving everyday issues. Our loved one’s vulnerabilities impact us whether they are acknowledged or not. Openness and honesty is crucial in a good relationship. This freedom is nurtured by not expecting your spouse to be perfect.
5. Respect means that we honor the other as a person who has important things to say and the power to influence me and others. Respect means that we believe that one person is not more worthwhile or valuable than another. Some people’s strengths are more visible to people; some people quietly work on small tasks and can be quite invisible to the world. A person who cleans an office building in the wee hours of the night all alone and who feels invisible is worth the same respect as a government leader or celebrity. Respect means that we honor one another’s words and life story.
6. Forgiveness means to walk in the realization that my spouse is going to sometimes disappoint me or disregard my true feelings. The need for forgiveness in every relationship means that trust is breakable and repairable. Forgiveness means that I seek to cultivate an emotional atmosphere that understands mistakes. Forgiveness includes a willingness to explore my
spouse’s world to understand the hurt or past vulnerability that may cause my spouse to act inconsiderately at times.
7. Grace is to be lovingly merciful and excusing of human foibles, weaknesses, and irritations. Mercy means pity. We need to have times when we feel sorry for our spouses, to feel the need to help him or her with problems that she or he creates. Many of our unkind behaviors are born in our own sufferings and deprivations. If we can look at our spouse with this mindset, we will
feel and extend grace. Grace is the gift of tenderheartedness.
*Daniel Siegel, The Developing Mind