There's a difference between 'hearing' and 'listening.'

Technically, it wasn't a date. It started as a group outing with friends, but we kept talking long after everyone else had gone home. Over a lunch of eggplant parmesan and lasagna, we discussed religion, politics, and morality. I was intrigued by Michael’s exaggerated facial expressions—one minute his eyes were wide, the next his huge eyebrows furrowed seriously and his lips pursed as he thought. Although we attended different churches, we discovered we had similar religious convictions. Our political views were not the same, but it didn't take long to discover that our values were. When we disagreed, Michael listened carefully to what I said before he responded, and he validated my opinions even if they were different from his own. The food grew cold. Well, mine grew cold; Michael is a faster eater than I am. At some point, still debating philosophy and bioethics, we went for a walk in the neighborhood outside. Muted by grey clouds, the afternoon sunshine was cool, so we kept moving to stay warm.

The conversation turned toward genetic anomalies. Michael commented that in a perfect world, there would be no genetic anomalies. As someone who works primarily with folks with special needs, many with genetic syndromes, I strongly disagreed. I described how happy and fulfilled my patients with Down syndrome and other genetic disorders can be, reveling in the joy of life without worrying about meeting society’s standards. A world without their unique perspectives didn't seem perfect to me at all. I watched Michael's face: serious again, eyebrows down, mouth small. He appeared to chew on this thought for a moment. Finally, he said, "That's a really good point. I hadn't thought of it that way before.”

Talk about butterflies in my stomach! My face broke into a wide grin. Later that afternoon, I called one of my best friends on the phone. "Alex, I was just on a . . . well, it wasn't a date, but I wish it was." I gushed about how much fun it was to talk to Michael: how insightful he was, how mature, and how he really listened and considered what I had to say. I talked about how safe I felt to disagree with him because he was so respectful of other perspectives.

I knew I wanted to spend my life with a good listener, someone who wasn't intimidated by different opinions. As Michael and I started dating, he consistently demonstrated those traits. Together, we decided on the things that we absolutely needed to agree about (the basics of our faith, the role of physical intimacy in dating, etc.) and the things we could respectfully agree to disagree about (like cats, our favorite foods, politics, etc.). We talked about all sorts of things: our families, our feelings, our workplaces, our pets.

A few months into the relationship, we had a very emotional argument. I wondered if our relationship could recover. But Michael, ever steadfast, insisted that we talk—he wanted to know why I felt so angry and for me to know why he felt so upset. His goal was to improve our communication to spare hurt feelings in the future. Michael wasn't concerned with who was right or wrong. He just wanted us to understand each other so we could repair the broken communication. Now, we look back on that argument (and its resolution) as a defining moment in our relationship.

Michael often quotes a conversation between his grandparents about marital disagreements. His grandfather asked his grandmother, "Do we get along all the time?" Her response: "Heck no!" Their marriage has stood firm for many years.

Michael and I are not always on the same page. When we realize that we don't agree about something, we talk about it—not with the intention of convincing each other of a point, but with the intention of understanding each other's thoughts and feelings so we can move toward either agreeing or respectfully disagreeing. (Admittedly, Michael is better at this than I am, but I'm working on it!) Even when we’re angry, Michael constantly reminds me that he loves me much more than he loves being right. And, he deeply cares about what I have to say, no matter what. His favorite question is, "What are you thinking?"

Each conversation is an opportunity to listen carefully and understand each other more deeply. You want to spend your life with someone who listens to what you have to say even if it isn't easy to hear, and who respects your thought process and your feelings. In short, someone who listens well. I've learned from Michael that the best kind of listener is someone who listens with the heart.