If you’re really old school, you may be thinking that the title of this post refers to the quaint, genuine, and meaningful “I love you.”
If you’re a little more modern, perhaps you’ve heard that “I love you” is nice, but even nicer, and more important, is “I was wrong.”
I’m going to go with something else.
But before I get to the big reveal, let’s take a moment to understand why neither of these two candidates make the cut for the number one spot in your marital lexicon.
I Love You
Here is one of my favorite marriage counselor stories:
A couple walks into a marriage counselor’s office looking for help.
“What’s the problem?” asks the counselor.
“He never tells me he loves me!” wails the wife.
Clearly irritated, the husband huffs, “Look, I told you I love you when we got married. If anything changes, I’ll let you know!”
Ha! Priceless, right?
And perhaps a more than a little on the mark.
Yes, it is important to say I love you. It’s important to put it out there and make sure your partner hears it. Don’t assume it’s obvious. Often that truth gets clouded over in the daily grind of work schedules, childcare, and all the rest of it. So it’s definitely important to say.
But it’s not enough.
Truthfully, it’s not that hard to say. It’s much harder to enact. Because love doesn’t mean buying flowers and chocolates (though it might include that).
Love means getting up and getting dressed to go take the trash out to the curb at 11:39 PM because you forgot to do it earlier. (Actually, if you want to see real love in action, it’s getting up and getting dressed to go take the trash out to the curb at 11:39 PM because your partner forgot to do it earlier – and not complaining about it!)
Saying I love you just doesn’t count for much if you talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. Do you just say it, or do you live it? If you’re not living I love you, then the three words won’t have much impact on your marriage. In fact, they may breed resentment. So I can’t award this phrase the number one spot.
I Was Wrong
A partner who loves you lots but is always right is still pretty annoying.
There is nobody who is always right. (Well, maybe there’s that one guy in Rome, but he’s not getting married anyway, so he can skip this post.) Therefore, if you are never acknowledging wrongdoing, you are not being fully honest.
Of course, it’s always tempting to cover up our mistakes and try to avoid their being noticed. It is natural to feel bad when we err, to feel smaller and weaker.
But in fact, the opposite is true: big people can acknowledge their mistakes; they know that it doesn’t take away from their fundamental worth as a human being to be imperfect. It is the small and the weak who feel that any error is an indictment of their value as a person and who must therefore hide their mistakes or defend, insist, obfuscate, and attack in order to prove that they were actually not mistaken at all.
We all have the potential to be strong or to be weak. And it’s not a binary. We all fall somewhere along the scale. I don’t know anyone who feels just as good on a day when everything goes right as on a day when they fumble repeatedly. Being able to acknowledge our mistakes comfortably and confidently is an ongoing life task – which is why the words “I was wrong” are such a gift in a relationship.
And yet, I believe that this one too can fall short of what is really most needed in a relationship.
Seeing that your partner will accept responsibility for their mistakes is certainly reassuring. But the essence of being in a relationship is not seeing your partner as a strong person (though that is certainly valuable). What people most want out of their relationships is a sense of connection. Accepting one’s mistakenness doesn’t necessarily breed that. In fact, it can sometimes lead to the opposite.
To suggest an exaggerated example, let’s imagine you stomped on into my room in an angry state and started to tell me off for something I had done. Before you get half a sentence out, I say, “I was wrong.” Maybe also, “Sorry.” Do you feel better?
You do not.
I don’t even know what I’m apologizing for! It doesn’t feel very genuine, or connecting. Even if I sincerely want to appease you and am willing to accept responsibility for whatever I did, if you don’t feel heard, then the admission doesn’t count for much.
And the Winner Is…
If what we are really seeking in a marriage is connection to our spouse, then the most important words will be those that foster connection. “I love you” is important, but in the absence of actions to back it up, it can seem empty or even bitter.
“I was wrong” is a good way to patch up a mistake you’ve made, but it’s too easy to throw around cavalierly; and even when it’s genuine, erasing a negative isn’t the same as building up something positive.
Therefore, I’d like to nominate the following phrase for your consideration as the most important three words in a marriage:
Help me understand.
Feeling heard and understood is a deeply meaningful, gratifying experience. This is all the more so when the person who is understanding you is someone close to you. Have you ever told your friend about the jerk you had to deal with today, and your friend gets outraged on your behalf? They get it. They feel you.
You may not always get why your spouse has the reaction they have to any given situation. In fact, there’s no way you could always get it. You’re not the same person. You see the world differently – perhaps very differently, perhaps not so differently. But it’s different nonetheless, because no two people are exactly the same.
The effort you put into understanding your spouse is a palpable sign of your love.
You see your spouse get angry at your preschooler, but you don’t think the kid did anything that bad. “Help me understand,” you say. Not “You really overdid it there,” or “What are you so mad about?” or even “why’d you do that?”
“Help me understand” means, “I don’t know why you are reacting the way you are, but I believe there must be some reason that makes sense to you, and I’m ready to hear you out.” It means you respect your spouse. It means you want to learn about them, get inside them, connect with them. It means love.
When you don’t understand what’s going on for your spouse, “help me understand” can lead to an answer. Assuming you know without trying to find out usually doesn’t end well.
When your spouse is upset with you, “help me understand” can show them you care about their pain more than you care about your own honor. Defending your actions often communicates the opposite.
When there’s no problem at all, “help me understand” can take you and your spouse to deeper levels of knowledge of each other and of connection. Trying it out can be a relationship-changing experience.
Help me understand why you seem so down today… I thought the vacation was going well.
Help me understand why you are so mad that I forgot to pick up the milk – it seems kind of minor to me, but I guess it’s a big issue for you.
Help me understand what your relationship with your sister means to you.
Because you mean something to me. You are important to me. And my efforts to understand you are a way I mean to communicate that to you.
These are the three most important words in a marriage. Use them, live them, and see how your marriage flourishes as a result.
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