A friend recently put words to something that struck me as both obvious and like an important revelation: being loved and being known are two different things and two different needs in our lives. We may have one without the other.
We need to be loved because we need to experience that our lives have value. Human beings are not content with merely existing, just like plants can’t survive in the soil without water and sunlight. Love enlivens and illuminates our worth.
But we also need to be known, because our lives have inner depth and we feel lonely and less than ourselves when this depth is unexplored or treated like it doesn’t exist. Being known is like cultivating the soil of the self. It enriches the depth and density of who we are, and creates a sense of rootedness in relationship.
People in our lives may genuinely love us. They may smile and embrace us, say kind words to us, spend time with us, give gifts to us, go out of their way for us and generously help us when we’re in need. Their presence, affection, and sacrifice remind us that our lives are valuable. Their love is beautiful and rightly cherished as the sacred gift that it is.
But these same people may not deeply know us. In fact, when we survey our relationships, we may discover that many people deeply love us but few people, if any, deeply know us. Strangely enough, some of the people who love us most may know us least.
For example, our loved ones may never ask us questions that enable them to discover who we are or who we’re becoming. Perhaps they assume that they already know who we are. Or perhaps they’re afraid to ask us questions, because our differences or disagreements may complicate our relationship. Or perhaps they simply haven’t ever thought of asking other people open-ended but intentional questions. Their question-asking muscle is like an atrophied arm that never reaches out or not far enough to touch us.
This situation is entirely familiar and enduringly disappointing: people deeply love us and play utterly vital roles in our lives; but they rarely or never do that seemingly easier act of asking us questions and getting to know us more. We have affectionate coexistence but little intimacy.
Loving without knowing others uncovers and casts light on two puzzling paradoxes.
First, we may feel truly loved and feel deeply lonely at the same time. Being loved is essential, but it may not be enough. Unexpectedly, love and loneliness are not incompatible. I’ve seen this in marriages, including my own: both partners may sincerely love each other, but one or both partners may not have the awareness or initiative to know the other by asking intentional questions. The result is confusing but critical to understand: the love is real, but the loneliness is also real and easily grows into resentment.
Second, the people who love us may feel most entitled to offer us advice, precisely because they love us and want good for us. But their advice may be unhelpful or unwanted because they haven’t done the work to know us well enough to address what we truly need or desire. Thus, again, a confusion becomes clearer: our seemingly best advisers — people who love us — may be severely limited, frustrating, or even misleading or damaging when it comes to making important decisions.
Giving a person the gift of being loved is truly precious. Giving a person the gift of being loved and known is even more precious — something deeper, more satisfying and sustaining. It’s the rich soil where the soul can open, grow and expand from the roots up. In fact, being known can unlock things within us that we didn’t even know were there and help us transition into the next crucial chapter of our lives. I’ve found that being loved and known is life-changing and life-saving.
Pause and ask yourself this question: Do I seek to love and know the people in my life? Do I go beyond “How’s it going?” to ask thoughtful questions that allow my loved ones to reveal themselves to me and be known?
The good news is that asking questions is not interrogation or information extraction. Your goal isn’t to make the other person feel forced to answer like a detainee or put under the microscope like an object of science.
Asking questions is more simple and powerful. It’s an invitation for the other person to reveal themself and be known as they want to be known. This takes the pressure off of you to figure something out or make something happen. The goal is simply to welcome them to share their life with you across time, little by little, in the ways they desire.
Crafting good questions isn’t easy, and asking careless questions can backfire and leave your loved one feeling more unknown than known or even alienated. It’s important to avoid questions that make the other feel trapped or belittled.
For example, instead of asking, “Do you still believe X?” or “Are you still Y?” which sounds like a test, you might ask, “How are you growing and changing?” which sounds like an invitation to be known. Decide in advance not to respond with disappointment or defensiveness if their answer isn’t what you expect or want to hear. No one wants to feel evaluated before they feel known. And remember: the fact that you love them may not mean that they feel known by you or that you are entitled to instruct them.
More broadly, you might try asking one or two open-ended questions like these:
- What are you processing in this time of your life?
- What is bringing you joy or stress?
- What do you feel like you need or want in this season?
- What questions are you asking?
- What are you learning about yourself?
- What is something you don’t say but want to say when someone asks, “How are you doing?”?
Keep in mind that your goal isn’t to get information or even to help them solve a problem. Your goal can’t be to test them and label them as fine, suspicious, or wrong. Your goal is simpler and more important: to invite them to reveal themself and be known.
Being loved and known is a sacred gift we can give to one another. It both is and isn’t magic. It enlivens our lives and is something practical we can learn how to do. This gift is shared through being present, asking thoughtful questions, and then listening attentively. Listening is a silent confession of love that says, “I’m with you, I’m for you, you’re safe to reveal yourself.”
Are there people in your life that you love well but don’t actually know well and who might love to be known by you? What open-ended question(s) can you start asking that might welcome them to start revealing a little bit more of who they are or who they’re becoming?
Looking back, the statement that I started with isn’t fully accurate: knowing others can be one of the most powerful and important expressions of loving them. It’s being present, asking thoughtful questions, and offering the other the gift of your ears, mind, and heart through attentive listening so their depth can be explored and cherished.
Sharing this deeper love will be life-giving for both of you. It may also be life-changing and life-saving.