In a healthy relationship, no one gets to have the last word all the time. Loving someone means accepting that they are a unique individual with their own thoughts and ideas.
This isn’t easy. Too often, we dismiss our partner’s opinions and feelings. Sometimes we feel misunderstood. Or we feel that our partner is unfairly criticizing us, so we shut down or argue back. On the other hand, sometimes we are distracted or stressed out–we don’t have the capacity to listen. Couples counseling can help!
Maybe after a long and hard day, our partner wants to complain about work…again! And so we choose to zone out. Or maybe you are busy checking your stocks and so when your partner asks you to take on the trash, it goes in one ear and out the other. (“What trash? I don’t remember you telling me that!?!)
These small, seemingly innocuous mistakes can blow up and lead to big arguments. Oftentimes at the heart of the matter, I hear people saying that they feel like their partner just doesn’t take them seriously. That somehow they are unimportant, and invisible. And this hurts deeply.
Healthy relationships take work, and learning how to listen is part of this work. Listening is one of the most powerful things we can do in our relationship. But it is also one of the hardest.
We may think we are listening, but there is a big difference between hearing and truly listening. And if you often hear the complaint “you never listen!” Then read on!
In Couples Counseling We Try These Tips:
1. Make sure you aren’t distracted.
Put your phone away when it’s time to have a conversation. Stop whatever you are doing, and give your partner your full attention. I often tell clients to pause whatever they are watching (e.g. the basketball/football game), or put down their tablets and phones.
If you are truly busy at the moment (e.g. changing a diaper, on the phone with an important client), say something like, “I’d like to give you my full attention. Can we talk about this in 10 minutes?” And don’t forget!
2. Check your body language.
Keep your facial muscles soft. Turn to face your partner. Make eye contact. Eye contact is very important! Remember when you were first dating, you couldn’t stop looking into each other’s eyes?
In the therapy world, we talk about babies who don’t get enough eye contact from their care givers in the early years of life end up with lots of social and emotional issues in later life.
In the same way, as adults, we need eye contact from our loved ones to feel important and heard. Keep your posture open; do not fold your arms or cross your legs. Show your partner that you are open to them and what they have to say. Body language speaks a thousand words.
3. Let them talk uninterrupted. Don’t give advice.
Do not interject, offer advice, or argue. In my experience, this is one of the hardest things for couples. We often love our partners so we don’t want them to be sad or angry anymore. And we have the solution! So we feel like if we can just tell them what to do so their problem will go away, the problem is solved! Not so fast.
I often tell couples that their partner is smart and probably knows the solution already. However, they feel stuck. When people feel stuck, they panic and they can’t think straight. If you can help your partner express their feelings in a safe space, your partner will calm down. When people are calm, guess what? They can think clearly. And when they think clearly, they can make the right decision.
So your role as a partner is not to give them the solution, but rather help them calm down so they can think clearly. Anyone can give advice. Your partner can go to google and get advice on anything in the world. Your role as a comforter and listener is so powerful, google can’t do that for us!
So keep quiet, and focus on what they are saying. Remind yourself that you will get a chance to voice your thoughts later. When you get the urge to interrupt, tune into your body. Just noticing where the feeling comes from can be enough to make it ebb away.
4. Mirror your partner’s words to check you’ve understood.
Rephrase their main points in your own words. Say, “I just want to understood I’ve understood you correctly. It sounds like you’re saying X,Y, and Z. Is that right?” This shows them you have been paying attention.
I know it feels cheezy but this is one of the most powerful things you as a partner can do. I have seen in happen in my office time and time again. It seems easy but it can be incredibly difficult. A lot of the work I do is helping those who have trouble listening to learn how to listen well, to know how to reflect and listen actively.
5. Ask clarifying questions.
If you’ve given your partner a chance to speak, but still don’t quite understand what they are saying, ask simple follow-up questions. Questions like, “Could you tell me exactly what you mean by that?” or “Could you give me a specific example?” work well.
Adopt an attitude of calm curiosity rather than judgment. Curiosity is the keyword here. If you don’t know the answer to something, ask your partner. Try to understand, not condemn, your partner. Put aside your assumptions and think about the situation from their perspective.
Couples Counseling: Active Listening Isn’t The Same As Agreement
Active listening is particularly difficult whenever your partner criticizes you or raises a sensitive issue. Your first response might be, “How dare they!” or “I won’t listen to this!” In other words, you go on the defensive, and communication breaks down entirely.
But that’s exactly when you and your partner need this technique. Active listening is a tool that helps you put aside your emotions for a few minutes and focus on your partner instead.
For example, your partner might say “Yesterday when you went out to lunch with your mom instead of me, that showed that you value her more than you do me.” Maybe you haven’t seen your mom in a month and you assumed your partner was busy so you didn’t bother asking your partner.” Your first reaction is to say “You’re wrong! Nothing I ever do is good enough!” And an argument ensues.
Listening doesn’t mean you agree with your partner, or that you have to give into their wishes. But you can put yourself in their shoes. In this example, if you can put yourself in your partner’s shoes: that maybe this whole week you’ve been busy at work. And she is alone with the baby all day, cooped up in the house. You don’t agree with what she’s said but you can understand how she’d come to this conclusion.
You can say something like, “I can see how you would feel that way. You see I’ve been busy at work. And you’re cooped up in the house all day with the baby.”
Ninety nine percent of the time, when a partner is able to do this, you can see her relax. She is not so angry anymore. And she can have a real discussion. You can tell her how you just didn’t think she would want to go to lunch. You can tell her you meant to take her out the day after but just didn’t get around to it and you’re sorry.
Listening helps both of you understand the other, which is the first step to finding a solution that works for you both.
Putting your ego to one side and connecting with your partner can be challenging, but it’s worth the effort. By taking time to understand their perspective, you’ll have less fighting and greater intimacy and joy in the relationship.
About the author: Lia Huynh is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in helping couples reconnect and rebuild trust in the San Jose, Milpitas and Fremont areas. If you or your spouse are still needing help finding the motivation to connect emotionally, or if you are finding the time but not connecting, marriage therapy/couples therapy can help. I have helped hundreds of couples in the San Jose, Milpitas and Fremont areas connect again. You can reach out today here or find out more about couples counseling here.