“He just gets me.” “I see you.” “I hear what she’s saying.”
Things we say about and to our loved ones often have to do with feeling seen and heard – or not – by them. There is no feeling in the world like being in the company of someone who you feel truly gets you on a deep level. In a fast-paced, urban city where we are often moving through our daily lives surrounded by people, but still alone (in our car getting through our commutes, or on foot or public transit wearing headphones, for example), it can be argued that many of us go through the day feeling almost invisible. Feeling alone in public takes a toll on our mental health. Many of us use social media to try and meet our needs and combat these uniquely modern feelings of isolation, but that is a poor substitute for true human connection. These struggles can make it all the more refreshing when we’re with someone who makes us feel truly seen. When we say that they just “get” us, we’re describing a sense of connection we have with that person, that they make us feel like we are real. We mean that they validate us and our existence.
That validation can be communicated through words, or it can manifest through being present and sharing a moment together. Sometimes that connection comes really naturally. When you just “click” with someone, it feels like you can finish each other’s…sandwiches, and sometimes you wonder if they can actually read your mind. Maybe you become roommates, or you fall in love with that person, or maybe that person becomes your maid of honor at your wedding (or all of the above)! However, people change over the course of time. Often the people we know, and are, after ten years of friendship or partnership aren’t the same people we were when we first met. Just how there’s nothing like the elation of true connection, there’s also nothing like the intense alienation that accompanies feeling estranged from your loved ones. What happens then?
Luckily, actions that make people feel truly seen can be learned and built like skills. The tricky part is, the things that make us feel truly seen and appreciated may not be what does the trick for our friends or partners. Although we grow up hearing the golden rule – “Treat others how you would like to be treated” – often, what we should really do is treat others the way they want to be treated. How can we let the people in our lives know that we “get” them?
When in doubt, use reflective listening. Reflective listening is the process of hearing, listening, and putting what you hear into your own words, and saying it back to the original speaker. This shows them that you were, in fact, hearing and listening to them, which is a connection in and of itself, and it also gives them the opportunity to share even more with you. When our friend or partner goes to share something with us, Dr. Gottman would describe it as a way to “bid” for connection, which we then have the opportunity to accept or reject. Can you think of ways your friend or partner bids for connection with you?
It’s important that we show our loved ones that we appreciate them in ways they can receive it (otherwise, both parties lose). Another helpful tool for doing this is becoming familiar with the concept of “love languages.” According to Gary Chapman, there’s five love languages, and you can take tests to determine which is your “primary” love language (the official test is here, and you can find more abbreviated tests online, such as here).
Combining the two ideas of “bids for connection” and “love languages,” it’s easy to imagine that, when we don’t have the same love language as our friend or partner, sometimes we may miss bids for connection because they’re not in the medium that would make us feel most connected. For example, our partner, whose love language is quality time, may ask us to go to a movie, but since our love language is words of affirmation (and maybe we feel like staying in that night), we won’t realize how important the request is for them, and miss an opportunity to connect with our loved one. However, if we use devices like the five love languages to understand what makes them feel most loved, we can “approve” that bid.
When we see our loved ones for who they truly are, take the time to learn how they most like to receive love, and then treat them the way they want to be treated (not the way we’d want to be treated!), it makes them feel seen, understood, and appreciated. Each time we see and meet our partner’s need, it connects us in that moment, and it also builds a long-term connection: over time, our loved ones learn that they can depend on us to continue to see and meet their needs in the future.