Relationships - think you understand each other?

25 - Jan - 2023

“In relationships, believing that we understand our partners and that they understand us is the single biggest cause of trouble.” In this article Nicholas explains how to keep your relationship in the best of health.

Understanding between partners’ comes from a desire for both security and vitally, safety –often closely associated with the idea of loving or being loved. In our relationships there is the lived expereince of connectedness whereby our feelings lead us to think that we share a connection. I like to think of the expereince of connectedness on a spectrum from communion to alienation and relationships flourish where those experiences of communion exist and flourish.

Of course we know that there is a constant tension in the potential for communion, time, availability, external pressures all impact and so away from the direct expereince of being together is a feeling about the relationship overall. Again, I like to think of a spectrum of feeling that arises when the relationship is reflected on, and the words ease and unease can be particularly useful. The relationships whereby there is a sense of ease can flourish whilst a sense of unease can helpfully be seen as a need for change. 

Unease often comes from misunderstandings, the ability to understand each other is crucial to navigating a relationship without disappointments, pain and trauma. Ultimately partners are the people most likely to be relied upon in an emergency and in emergencies nothing is more important that clear communication – it is nothing less than a need born out of a wish for survival. Potentially it all starts from birth – if understanding does not exist between us and our primary carers then this can have devastating affects – therefore the first thing we do as babies is strive for understanding. How we do this varies depends upon what we learn in our attempts to gain attention – is it more effective to be noisy or quiet, happy or sad, laugh or cry, well or sick, tidy or messy, dependent or independent, creative or practical - the list is endless. Therefore what we learn in the early days is the closest we come to have an approach to life and relationships that is “hardwired”. Simply put, we are good at doing or being in ways for which we have felt the existence of understanding, expereincing communion and ease.

The implication is we need to challenge our assumption we understand and are understood around the most basic of concepts. For example, love. How love is expressed varies enormously across cultures, communities and families. Just ask your friends how love was shown to them as children and you are likely to get a wide variety of responses from food, fun, talking, not talking, sharing, giving, taking, education, discipline, fairness, holidays the list is endless. Another good example is how people are looked after when sick. In some cultures it is common for everyone to visit sick friends and relatives, in others the patient is cared for by being protected from visitors. Neither is right or wrong but someone who is used to visitors when sick will feel neglected and uncared for if their partner tells everyone to keep away as they need rest! Here we are thinking about how love and care are shown and understood. People show love in many ways including kind words, touch, acts of service, gift giving and time and the style often differs between partners. Therefore it is actually the case we only really know how to communicate with those people we have learnt to develop an understanding.

As adults we acquire the ability to enter into relationships on equal terms. Fundamentally a shared language and status provides us with all we need to build and maintain healthy relationships and understanding. It sounds basic and the principle is, however the skills are something to be learnt and developed. Here are some basic rules:

  1. Words like “love” are short cuts – use them at your peril. Instead, never assume that the word means the same to you and your partner.
  2. It requires commitment from both parties to develop an understanding. (At the extreme, the presence of physical or emotional abuse in a relationship suggests that the commitment does not exist).
  3. If you feel hurt by something that your partner does or says then (as long as it is not physically or emotionally abusive) it is likely that your defences and theirs are revealing a conflict of understanding. Do not assume that the intention was to hurt you, instead say how you felt and ask if that was what had been intended. Remember relationships often breakdown due to the conversations that have not been had rather than those that have.
  4. Never underestimate the possible impact of change, difficult times and stress. Anything that changes your routines or patterns can bring stress that triggers defences – at difficult times in life you might find it difficult to recognise each other. Look out for bereavements, fertility issues, children arriving and leaving, career changes, health challenges, moving home or building works and traumatic events are a few.
  5. Also include external changes in your thinking - the pandemic, lockdowns, bad news and current cost of living crisis all bring pressure and stress so ensure you have a way of checking in with each other.
  6. If you are struggling then do not hesitate to seek professional help. Many couples seek help when it is too late - when there is too much misunderstanding and hurt and not enough energy and commitment left in order to make the changes required.