One of the trickiest things you can say to someone is “I understand.” I am not saying you should never say it. I am simply advising that you tread very carefully when using this phrase. Think about what the first thing that comes to mind when someone tells you they understand what you are saying. I don’t know about you, my mind typically goes straight to “Do you now? Really?” I find that it is safer to show your understanding by empathizing with the person. Try seeing things from their perspective and rather than saying “I understand,” show them by engaging in a meaningful conversation about what is being discussed.
It doesn’t matter how many significant others or major relationships came before you. It doesn’t matter if you are the first or the longest. What matters is that, regardless of your number or place, you know and understand the fact that whoever you choose to be with is in possession of life experiences that came before you or happened when you weren’t around. These are experiences that molded and shaped the person into who they are now. There is nothing you can do to change that. There is plenty you can do to mess things up if you don’t put the effort into understanding and empathizing with their past.
Just because it wasn’t your fault, doesn’t give you the right of way to behave however you want, or to treat them as if your experiences matter more. At least, not if you want or expect things to work out well. Asking questions is a good start and keeping track of their likes and dislikes will assist you in making better, and more positive relationship decisions, but it doesn’t stop there. It takes a lot of effort and an ongoing commitment. Things will come up, good and bad. It is important to go beyond just listening and to try understanding what that means to them and to try putting yourself in a mindset of trying your best to view things how they did/do.
An extreme example, but it drives my point, is if you have never lost a close friend or family member. Telling someone who has just experienced this tragedy that you understand how they are feeling can seem like a good idea, maybe you even think it is helpful, and at the moment, it might be. There is no way that you truly understand though because you have never endured that emotional experience. It is heartbreaking, and someone who has never experienced that type of heartbreak can’t possibly understand what that heartbreak feels like.
Instead, empathize with them. Learn about their past and let that guide you towards better navigating your encounters with them. It will help to reduce potentially awkward or negative encounters. It will strengthen the relationship. Most importantly, it will show them that you care about their past and what makes them who they are now, which in turn, makes you more likable and pleasant to be around.