Source: nightowl/Pixabay

With careful observation, people can identify the sources of their own happiness, meaning and joy. For example, using discernment, they can evaluate what money can and cannot buy. Yes, it can secure a good bit of comfort, beauty and freedom, providing relief, pleasure, and opportunity. But it cannot buy respect, love, trust, or creativity. While purchased pleasures can also offer distraction from intensity or relief from the grind of discipline, they can also dilute observation by creating distance from direct experience.

Seventy-five years of longitudinal research detailing the lives of two groups of Boston men have shown how clearly the key to their happiness and well-being lay in the quality of their close relationships. Other studies, ones including women and those born past the third decade of the 20th century, support this finding.  Discerning opportunities to honor those close relationships has been the focus of “52 Ways to Show I Love You”.

Last December, I introduced this series by describing two sources of misunderstanding. They are  rooted in feelings of loving and being loved. On December 18th I related the impact of my experiences with patients, students, published studies, and my own loved ones. They convinced me that too often what one person believes to be an expression of love is not at all the way in which the loved one wants (or needs) to feel loved. I wanted to help people better discover how they themselves experienced feeling loving or being loved by another and when those they cared about felt most loved by them. The following week, on December 25th, I underscored the diversity in cultural interpretations of ways of expressing love. Discernment is the key to meeting both challenges.

What do we discern when we observe?

  • Expressed emotions. To be responsive, we need to be able to accurately identify a loved one’s emotions. Research by Ekman and colleagues documents how strongly emotions register through our facial muscles. We can learn to decipher them best during times of real contact.  As Mehrabian has shown, most of the emotional content of a message is lost when transmitted at a distance. That includes by phone and even more by text message.
  • Words uttered in response. How often are words misunderstood? Nuances of voice (Mehrabian again) can help us interpret spoken words, but the promise of accurate understanding comes through a question that (gently) asks for clarification.  “I’m not sure what you mean.  Please, can you help me understand?”
  • Actions that show a response (or fail to). Ultimately words are letters or sounds strung together to represent a thing, an idea, a symbol. Actions speak more loudly, the point of this series, Ways to SHOW love. Careful observation of the consistency or disconnects between words and actions (including unconscious expressions and body language) can help us all become better psychologists, as Harry Stack Sullivan pointed out nearly 50 years ago.
  • Inconsistencies in reactions. In addition to contradictions between words and behaviors, we can become sensitive to voiced enthusiasm coupled with crossed arms or a scowl, to tears that suggest pain or sadness or relief coupled with wrapping oneself in extra jacket, a gesture suggesting the chill that accompanies fear.

How does observing help loving?

  • It can match our expectations with reality. We form unconscious expectations of how things happen or what they mean. Over a century ago, William James pointed out the evolutionary necessity of forming concepts, in order to deal with the “buzzing, booming confusion” of the infant’s world. Piaget documented the natural process by which the concepts evolve into scripts.  Tomkins demonstrated the links between emotion and scripts as they come to motivate behavior. But scripts sometimes require revision. The best corrector is direct experience. So noting actual reactions in ourselves and our loved ones can help us align them with what is really happening, for better or worse.  We can thus correct our perceptions, revising them from what we wish might be happening or expected would happen.
  • It can help us examine our conclusions. We receive another chance to ask, “Do I really like the color blue”? or “Does she in fact want that big party?” We might want to throw it for her or think that she should want it — but might she be serious about preferring a quiet evening at home?
  • It can help us better appreciate our loved one’s meaning system. Once we accept that our meanings depend on our memories and grow out of our unique personal and cultural histories, we can better appreciate ways in which they differ from those of a loved on. We can identify the associative logic that strings them together.
  • We can better learn when words are empty and when they are inadequate.  Words are empty when they are contradicted by behavior. Saying “I love you” and then unleashing a string of complaints about the condition in which you left the … (fill in the blank) is an example of emptiness. Saying “I love you” and then failing to make time to pay attention to your loved one’s or even your own distress or to what you yourself are saying you need, are examples of inadequacy.
  • We can become better attuned to our reactions of cognitive dissonance. Neuroimaging studies have shown the expense of energy wasted when we deny cognitive dissonance. It used to be called “repression”.
  • We can better appreciate how our loved one attempts to show us we missed the mark. Does he or she become sullen? Withdrawn? Annoyed? Uncooperative? Unresponsive? Angry at trivial matters for reasons that you cannot understand?
  • We can correct our own misinterpretations of our loved one’s behavior and how he or she understands our own. We are capable of learning throughout our lives. Looking at our experiences through alternate points of view can help us practice our skills in learning as well as help our relationship continue to grow in depth and integrity.
  • We can confront the limitations of our repertoire and become more responsive to the one we love.

What are some moments when you detected a difference between what someone said and what he or she really meant? How did you know? Were you ever caught off guard? Did you become defensive or did you work to better align your thoughts, feelings and behavior and to communicate them more clearly?

Copyright 2017 Roni Beth Tower   First posted on, Life, Refracted