Love or Understanding?

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Jennifer is a group therapist committed to helping people grow emotionally and develop the lives they want. She is the founder and director of the ...Read More

I recently attended an excellent professional workshop for therapists. The presenter, Jeffery Bernstein, asked whether we think love or understanding is more important to creating and maintaining healthy relationships. He thought understanding was more important. I thought it was an intriguing question, and wanted to know what friends and clients thought about this. Here are my results.

First a couple of caveats to state before we look at the survey results. Of course both are critically important. And there is much overlap between the two. Also, either/or and forced-choice questions like this are inherently limited/confining.


Ok we have the caveats, now let’s answer anyway. In my informal and highly unscientific survey, people overwhelmingly chose understanding. Here are some sample responses:

  • Love without understanding is probably really more like lust or greed.
  • Understanding is more important, because that creates the conditions for love.
  • Understanding is more important, as love without understanding won’t last.
  • Understanding someone is more of a feat than falling in love.
  • Understanding can go so many routes were love is just a good relationship.
  • Understanding leads to love.

I guess I am the lone voter for love. Here’s my thinking as to why.

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Understanding can mean what we call these days ’emotional intelligence’, or being aware, sensitive and intuitive with others. For example: “you seem down today, is that right?” Or “I can understand why you are speeding since we’re late for our appointment and I’m anxious too but can you slow down a bit”.

This sounds great, however understanding can also mean, or get mixed in with, relating. For example: “oh, I can relate, the same thing happened to me” or “I understand because I just went through that myself”. Understanding in this relating manner is more about ‘getting it’.

Our culture is biased in ways that intend to bring us together, but actually keep us apart:

1. Cognitive bias (intellect trumps everything else)
2. Self-referential (how does this relate to me)
3. So-called sameness is safe and comforting (‘You just went through a divorce and so did I, so we get each other, we have a mutual understanding’)

Therefore it makes sense that ‘I get it’ (the content of the story) and ‘I get you’ (the human connectedness of seeing the other) are often mixed up as interchangeable. In other words, we learn to put a value on understanding, and even emotionally relating, to the topic of the story versus the storyteller.

I think that seeing and listening to the storyteller is an act of love. Seeing others is to practice our humanity together; what else is that but love?

In one of my therapy groups we were having a discussion about this. One client felt that the group did not understand him because no one else had experienced a particular recent loss in their lives in the same way he did. He asked, ‘how can others know how hard and upsetting this situation is?’ When some group members leapt to the occasion by saying some very loving things, like: ‘I want to know how you are doing’, and ‘I want to support you’ and ‘ I feel sad about what you are going through’, the client could not take in this love from others and still felt estranged and unsatisfied. Why? Because there still was no proof that people ‘got it’.

As seen in this example, our culture’s need for relating and cognitively understanding what someone else is going through, it can keep us separated and more alone.

I see you. I hear you. I am here with you, whether or not I ‘understand’ you. Now that’s love.

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