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Relationships

Good listening…the key to a happy, healthy couple’s relationship

By Carol Ummel Lindquist, Ph.D.

Adapted from the author’s book Happily Married with Kids: It’s NOT just a fairy tale (Berkley Books)

We’ve all been told that good communication is the key to success in a couple’s relationship. But we may be over-emphasizing the talking part. What’s even more important than talking is listening—really listening to our spouse or partner in a way that is supportive of him or her and of the relationship.

Here are a few basic rules to begin with.

Rule 1 Let your partner know you’re listening. It doesn’t mean you agree. Just give the other person eye contact and do nothing else while she or he is talking (and that includes muting the TV while you’re still watching the screen). Even if the person says, “You’re acting like a jerk,” nod your head slowly. Resist the impulse to answer back, deflect or interrupt. Your close attention will be rewarded.

Rule 2 Repeat what was said as accurately as you can. If your partner is really angry, repeat it word for word. Otherwise, restate the central feelings. You will soon discover whether you got it right. Many partners go through the motions of listening but assume they already know what the other person is going to say. Your partner will be stunned if you look him or her in the eye and respond in a way that shows you were really tuned in to what he or she was saying.

Rule 3 Sympathize, reflecting the feeling as accurately as you can. Again, this doesn’t mean you agree with what was said. For example, a comment like, “Sounds like you’ve had a long day and need a break” lets the other person know you care—and it may be all that’s required. Reserve judgment, be sympathetic and wait for the whole story. You will often be pleasantly surprised.

Rule 4 Ask “Is there anything more you want to tell me?” Often, as people verbalize an issue, they start to resolve it on their own. So what sounded at first like “you’re unreliable and lazy” may change. Your partner may even say something like “I love you but I’m just so frustrated with my life right now.” Sensitive questions will give a person a second and third chance to discover subtler feelings and shift to a calmer, more neutral place.

Couples researcher John Gottman, Ph.D., has found that happy couples tend to maintain the same ratio of positive to negative comments and gestures in conversations about their conflicts. Let’s talk about some ways to achieve that fine balance when you’re having a disagreement and even when you’re not:

Avoid painful putdowns. Name calling, labeling, or describing your partner’s feelings as an “over-reaction” can pretty much guarantee that an issue won’t get resolved. Any time an argument includes the words “You are so…” or “you always…” (fill in the blanks), the possibility for resolution is seriously diminished.

Don’t agree or disagree when your partner is upset. Changing the subject or disagreeing will make angry people start repeating themselves. On the other hand, agreeing simply to stop an argument breeds resentment. You’ll resent it if you go along with something you disagree with, and your partner will resent it if you agree and then do something else.

Don’t propose a solution unless you are asked. Men are famously accused of this, but  women do it as well, especially when they feel attacked or just want to be helpful. Solutions are distractions that interrupt the listening process, and even when you’re asked for one, first make sure you understand the whole problem by restating what you think is being asked.

Recognize ‘right times’ to listen. Notice when you and your partner communicate best and try to spend those times together. But don’t try to make every interaction an opportunity for an in-depth discussion—“healing” listening isn’t always required. Sometimes it’s better just to comply when your partner makes a routine request.

If you can’t listen, make a plan to talk. If you’re trying to do something or the baby is crying, say something like, “This really sounds important and I would like to talk about it when I can focus. Can we talk about it after the baby is asleep?” Or, if your partner is yelling and you just can’t think, leave a note that you want to talk when both of you are calm—and be sure to follow through.

Use “I” messages. For example: “I feel overwhelmed by all the clutter we have around us.” Or “I feel like a maid when I go around picking up all our stuff.” Even saying “I don’t want to be resentful, but I am” works better than “Why don’t you start helping me once in awhile?”

Know what works as a truce trigger. Are those triggers the same for you and your partner? Or are they different? Let your partner know how much it means to you when he or she tries your truce trigger—and do more of what works for your partner.

Notice conflicts that are resolved easily. Is there something you could do again to repeat that success? Comment on your success. “Wow! We got over that a lot faster than we did last time. How did we do that?”

Ask ‘What helps you recover after being upset?’ If you and your partner don’t know the answer, ask your parents or friends. Though it seems spouses should know best, sometimes outsiders have more objective ideas.

Aim for 3-5 nurturing gestures a day. These may include calling, e-mailing, texting, picking up the dry cleaning, or just thanking your partner for filling up the gas tank.

Share small moments. Use them to remind yourselves why you belong together.

Is that a problem? A change request? Or a weather report?

Sometimes we just need to talk through our feelings. We want to know that our spouse or partner hears us and we want some sympathy. We may also want to ask a few questions and elicit the other person’s feelings. In other words, we don’t need anything “fixed.” That’s a weather report. No action is required.

A problem, on the other hand, is something we want advice about. It requires a discussion, some proposed solutions and a plan of action. Problems may involve children, friends or family members—and may not be directed at our partner.

A change request is an action item. We’re unhappy and need something to change that involves our partner. We may (or may not) know the solution and may (or may not) need to change ourselves to make it better. But something in our life needs improvement.

Say upfront what it is. Let your partner know whether you’re expressing a weather report, a problem or a situation that needs to change.

If it’s a change request, say “I have an issue. I want something to change about this.” For example, “Last time your parents were here, I felt really exhausted. Could we make a plan to make it easier for me when they visit this time?”

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