St. Francis on Marriage

Posted on July 24, 2013


Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.  St. Francis of Assisi


Much of what you get from me every week is what I was thinking about after a session with clients.  This is no exception.  If you get this piece right, you can have a much more satisfying and long lasting relationship and skip going through therapy.

Empathy.  This is my soapbox.  Empathy is transforming to relationships.  What does that look like?  I think Frank said it well in the quote above.  “May I seek not so much to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand.”  Empathy is about communicating that I get what something was like for you.  It is seeking to understand.  As an aside, it is advisable to avoid saying the words, “I understand” as your partner will probably tell you that you don’t.  If you say, “It sounds like it was like this for you,” your partner can say “yes” or “no” and is more likely to feel understood.  When we feel understood, we feel valued and emotionally safe.  It helps us better connect to our partner.

The antithesis of this is defensiveness.  When your partner brings a complaint to you,[1]  if you immediately deny your partner’s position, it moves you both away from emotional connection.  If my wife brings up an issue and I immediately defend, I have just made the discussion about me rather than about her experience.  She has asked me to understand her experience, and I have essentially said, “no, let’s look at my experience instead.”  I have asked to be understood, but have not yet communicated that I understand what she is trying to tell me.

Often partners have arguments wherein they continue to repeat their same positions.  Frequently, it gets to the point that either partner could repeat verbatim what their partner has told them multiple times during the course of the argument.  So why do we keep repeating what has already been said?  On a most basic level it is because we do not yet feel understood.  There is a part that our partner is not getting so we repeat.  Our partner may have understood the words, but there is a further meaning to us that our partner either did not get or we feel our partner did not get.

During my business career, prior to becoming a therapist, I had learned a method for mediating conflict.  It went something like this.

  • Person 1 communicates his or her position.
  • Person 2 reflects what he or she has understood person 1 to have said (no defense and no counter argument; there will be time for that later).
  • Person 1 either agrees or disagrees that there message has been adequately understood by person 2.  If person 1 does not feel understood we repeat the process.
  • Once person 1 feels adequately understood, we reverse the process allowing person 2 to share and person 1 to reflect what he or she has understood.
  • Once everyone understands each other, we move into what each person would like to see happen from here.

This process generally works pretty well.  The key to it is to ensure that each party feels understood.

In his wonderful 2 paragraph book on marriage, also known as “The Prayer of St. Francis,” Frank nailed it.  We need to make sure that our partner feels understood, “for it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”

[1] You have to be able to complain in marriage.  The problems start when complaining moves into criticism.