Of course, most folks would like both. Ideally, we’d be completely loved and understood at all times, right?
But if you had to prioritize, which would you choose?
Feeling loved is more heart-centered, and being understood is more brain-centered.
Think about recent arguments or discussions you’ve been in with your partner. Were the ideas you shared an attempt to get your partner to see your side, or were you trying to motivate them to say something loving or reach out and give you a hug?
Understanding the difference between feeling loved and being understood
An oversimplified way of looking at this is that showing love usually requires some type of action. That could be reaching out to give a hug or performing some service that will let your partner know that you value them.
Being understood could involve actions, but it is often more cognitive and conversational. A partner who values being understood might push to explain themselves in an argument, laying out all the reasons behind their choices. This is often mistaken for an attempt to justify their behaviors, which could further agitate the partner who doesn’t see their partner’s need to be understood.
Neither wanting to feel loved nor desiring to be understood is right or wrong. They’re both perfectly valid needs and wants. A desire to be understood is a desire to be loved.
But misinterpreting or assuming we know what your partner wants from the discussion can lead to an understanding breakdown. Over time, these can sometimes build up and cause resentment.
Why do we get it wrong?
We love our partners. We committed ourselves to them because we believed our futures would be better because this other person was in our life. So why is it possible to get even the most basic interactions so wrong?
It’s a basic human tendency to give what we desire.
For example, I seek to be understood and get verbal strokes from my partner. When my spouse tells me I’m smart and great, I’m overjoyed. I grow giddy and excited if she shows curiosity about my next new great idea.
So can you guess what I default to in my interactions with my wife? I find ways to tell her how great she is. I ask her about her new ideas. I try to be her biggest champion, telling her all the ways I support her. These are all fantastic things a partner wants to do for the other person.
Except…my spouse’s preference is to feel loved. For her, this is expressed in acts of love or service. She enjoys it more when I bring her coffee in bed in the early morning than when I share a supportive remark (but she still loves supportive words, of course).
Because my wife desires acts of love or service, she goes about her day performing loving acts for me. She goes out of the way to pick up my favorite snack or run an errand on my behalf to free up my day.
We’re both active and involved and trying to put energy into our relationship.
But most people’s default way of expressing love to someone else is based on how we’d want to receive love. We fail to stop and consider that our partner has their own unique values and needs. Often it’s our closeness to our partners that make us take things for granted. We’re so alike in so many ways we fail to see the tiny differences that do exist.
And when we miss each other’s preferred way of being nurtured, acknowledged, and attended to, we can fail to communicate the love we intended to express to our partner.
An exercise to help you understand your partner’s needs
Here’s your mission should you decide to accept.
Find some quality time together – possibly your next date night. But it doesn’t even have to be the evening. Simply find a chunk of time where you can have some one-on-one time to sit down and talk without interruption.
Start off by guessing whether your partner prefers being loved or understood. Maybe you write down your answer with a few examples of things they’ve done or actions you’ve noticed that make you think your answer is right.
Now, it’s time to ask them what they think. Don’t judge, dismiss, or try to change their minds here. We want to hear what our partner believes about themselves. Really listen to what they’re saying and see if you can recall times when you noticed their clues or responded to their needs differently.
Then, the two of you can take turns sharing what you thought the other person would say and talk about the discrepancies (if there are any). It’s helpful to talk about what you’ve noticed in their behavior and why you interpreted it that way. Maybe you’ve been trying to be your wife’s biggest cheerleader when she’d just love you to come to hug her or help out with some chores. Give each other some grace here. Understand that even if they responded differently to what we wanted in a moment, they were still attempting to show you love.
Finish the exercise by discussing practical things you can do to put what you’ve learned into practice. Don’t stop saying, “oh, I didn’t realize you preferred things that way.” Go the extra mile and talk about specific changes you can make. For example, “when I notice you doing or saying this, I’ll respond with that.”
A bit of clarity goes a long way
Many like to believe that love should just easily happen. They feel like all couples have some magical connection that one just understands and knows at all times. But our assumptions about what our partner wants often end up getting us in trouble. Isn’t it easier to stop and clarify rather than let years of missed opportunities build up?
For some couples, saying your intentions out loud or being specific in your planning can feel a bit forced or unnatural. But learning how to stop and ask our partners what they need or want in a given situation is a worthwhile skill to learn and can save us a ton of heartache or missed connections.
When we take time to clarify our partners’ love language, we can go forth in our relationships with more enjoyment and less effort. It’s much easier to stop in the moment and ask if you heard something right or if this is what they want than to unpack decades worth of misconnections.
It’s important to note that all couples will go through these miscommunications to various degrees at different times in their relationships. You’re not a total failure because you can’t express love perfectly every time. We all make mistakes and shift from time to time, needing different types of love at various stages of our lives due to what we’re going through.
You obviously showed enough love to get this amazing person to want to commit to you. Just fight against becoming complacent and assuming you always know. Stop and ask and reconfirm things from time to time.
When sailors are out in the open seas, they recheck their navigation charts routinely to ensure they haven’t drifted too far off course. Similarly, in relationships, we sometimes need to check in with our partners to ensure we’re not drifting too far off the mark and maintaining our relationship. When we’re open to a bit of guidance and redirection, we can ensure we’re communicating what we want when we want to the person we love most.
If you ever feel like you’re struggling to communicate effectively in your relationship, don’t be afraid to reach out to a relationship counselor for support. We have a network of trained and licensed couples counselors available around the country to support every type of relationship. At Grow My Relationship, we believe your relationship with your partner is the most important one in your life and is worth working on.