One Absolutely Necessary Ingredient for a Great Relationship that No One Talks About

by Dr. Laura Bokar, LMFT, LCPC, ACS

We have all read many articles and books about relationships. Most of them state that in order to have a great relationship we need to communicate better, actively listen, go out on dates, put the phones away, make the relationship a priority over children, have sex, laugh, try new things, etc.  Yes, these are all important to maintain a healthy relationship. Yet the recipe list is presented as if, when done over a period of time, a relationship will simply improve. It will for that period of time, but the human tendency is to revert back to old habits. The recipe list is essential for a healthy relationship but will be difficult to sustain without adding one necessary ingredient.

What is the ingredient that could change everything?  This one ingredient is essential to building a more authentic relationship which may seem obvious but isn’t. The one absolutely necessary ingredient for a great relationship that no one talks about is the need to understand. Yes, the need to understand.  How does this important factor get missed when people talk about relationships? When we are learning anything new, what do we typically do? We google information, purchase a book on Amazon, talk to those who appear to be in great relationships and we obsess about it. We do all of this to help us understand.  Without understanding, we most likely won’t know how it works, what it needs, how to take care of it, and most likely won’t invest much time with it after we have it. If we don’t understand our significant other, then how will we know what they need and how to love them?

I was working with a couple where the wife, Sarah, was raised in a very loud, angry and verbally abusive family.  Matt, her husband, was also raised in a loud family but for a different reason. He was one of four boys who all loved watching sports together.  They would get very excited and also frustrated over games on TV. When Sarah and Matt married, they did not know much about each other’s history growing up. So when Matt would yell and scream at the football games, Sarah would become very frightened and leave exit the room. Matt was confused because he wanted Sarah to watch the games with him just like at home with all his brothers. It was not until Matt and Sarah had a conversation that a new understanding was developed. Sarah would become scared when Matt raised his voice because it felt like she was back home being verbally abused. Even though Matt was yelling and swearing at the football players and not Sarah, she could not separate the two. Once Matt understood how his behavior affected Sarah, he wanted to change and not hurt his wife. Once Sarah understood Matt’s history she wanted to work at staying in the room and watch the game with him. Both had a new understanding of the situation and both wanted to change to create a closer connection.

Sometimes when couples argue they tend to hear a word or tone that triggers an emotion.  They do not look to understand the emotion that is behind the words. For example, there are many times in a therapy session when one partner will state how angry they are at the other partner.  When I hear the word angry, I understand on a more vulnerable or primal level, that means hurt or sad. When someone becomes angry they do not want to be vulnerable. Anger is safer and creates distance. However, the true desire is to have their partner know and understand how hurt they really are.

In your significant relationship as well as any meaningful relationship, it is important to learn about the other person and understand their needs and desires.  It is also important to be curious about their past, including relationships with their parents. We need to take time to understand who they are, what makes them feel loved, happy, sad, scared, excited, depressed and all the other emotions we experience.  In other words, if we do not get to truly know and understand them, we will not know how to love them. Be curious about the people you love and care about – it will help keep a healthy relationship alive.