man and woman about to kiss

Clearing a path to understanding

In Community and Relationship by John PtacekLeave a Comment

Knowing someone for a long time doesn’t mean you understand them. In relationships, familiarity can actually make a mess of things. Disregard history and listen to someone you love as if for the first time.


If you want to offer me something of value, don’t profess your affection for me. Instead, try to understand me.

Tell me how much you love me. Swoon over my charming personality. Pronounce me the sexiest man alive. Whatever.

Understanding is love in action. It is a peak human achievement that plumbs the depths of our most intimate relationships. Beneath the glossy veneer of romance that permits us to skate through the preliminary stages of couple-hood, a more serious game is afoot. We are secretly eyeing a door in the distance and wondering if we will risk opening it one day. It is the door to our innermost thoughts and feelings, a door we must dare to open if we wish to be fully understood.

The fruit of understanding is acceptance. We want others to know why we feel the way we feel and why we do the things we do, so that others can view our behaviour in a broader context. When we act in ways that lie outside their realm of experience, they won’t be as likely to judge us. If we are quick to anger, slow to apologise, or intractable with respect to our annoying habits, those who wish to understand our foibles rather than curse them hand us something quite precious – acceptance – shaky as it might be when our behaviour pushes them to their limits.

I want to be understood for the things I do, but also for the things I don’t do. For example, I don’t attend parties, discuss politics, celebrate holidays that are not named Thanksgiving, or smile much. If you didn’t know me well enough to understand me you might think I am anti-social or a big grouch. I am neither. I simply climb the ladder of my DNA to attain happiness the way we all do. You might not separate your trash into recyclables, believe in an afterlife, or get on an airplane without first drinking yourself drunk. What does any of this make you? You, that’s who. And doesn’t it make you light up when you run into another person who understands your morbid fear of flying?

I experienced one of these electric moments recently. The briefest online exchange with someone I barely knew caused my tumblers to click into alignment, opening the  door to a room inside me that few people enter. It had to do with a shared experience involving medical care, and the level of intimacy that moment triggered, especially the velocity at which it drew me so close to this near stranger, caught me off guard. It prompted me to consider the correlation between familiarity and understanding. Did one necessarily imply the other?

Dysfunctional families, burned out marriages and strained relationships demonstrate that time can create emotional distance just as easily as it can erase it. Simmering resentments and unmet expectations distort our perception of each other, planting boulders on the path to understanding. Extramarital affairs I have had the displeasure of witnessing weren’t instigated by thrill seeking or sexual fulfilment as much as by an overwhelming need to be understood, to be listened to with the eager attention of a doting lover. This need is a wick in search of a flame. We may prefer that it be lit by one person or another, but when the need is strong enough, it becomes indifferent to its source.

If familiarity can erode our capacity to understand each other, then how do we steer around the boulders? Surely it isn’t reasonable – or even advisable – to expect partners in a long-term relationship to flush away years of history and listen to each other with the blank slate of a near stranger. Or is it?

Disregarding history need not mean burning it to the ground. It means temporarily letting go of it in order to create an optimal listening environment. It’s like taking off one’s muddy shoes so as not to sully a brand new carpet. For me to listen to you, really listen, I must clear my mind of thoughts, making it an empty canvas on which you can record your story. I must switch off any impulse to question, analyse, interpret or engage in other mental activities that are purposeful in certain situations but that only get in the way of a pure listening experience. Rid of thought, I am rid of the past, for the past is nothing but thought. By silencing history, I can listen to you as if for the first time.

This would not be an entirely unselfish act on my part. By listening to you without the filter of the past, I will have been released from the prison of my misconceptions about you.This may even be the better end of the deal.

So go ahead and flatter me until your lips chap. Who couldn’t use a little canoodling every now and then? But if you really want to connect with me, approach me as a stranger whose secrets can be had for the cost of an open and untainted mind. Forget everything you know about me and become my new old friend.

About the author

John Ptacek

John Ptacek’s essays explore the unquestioned assumptions that limit our capacity for happiness. They appear on his website, John lives in Wisconsin with his wife Kitty.

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