Your ability to truly listen in a relationship changes over time
In the beginning of a good relationship, listening is easy. Everything seems new and exciting and partners are happy to make eye contact, support each other, and demonstrate that they care.
Listening acts as a doorway into the other’s heart and feelings of connection and intimacy grow stronger as partners learn about each other with an open mind – anything seems possible.
Couples often experience higher levels of difficulty in communication at three, seven, or ten years into the relationship. After two people have been together for a while, listening becomes less natural and past experiences with that partner often cloud the present and impact one’s ability to listen with an open mind. A partner may think that they know what the other is going to say before they say it and can often expect their partner to know how they feel without expressing it.
One partner may become the “fixer” and immediately respond to their partner’s upset with a solution. This ends up frustrating the person trying to share their experience because they either don’t feel heard or get the message from their partner that it isn’t okay to feel that way – that something must be wrong with them for feeling the way they do.
The result is that what begins as a simple conversation and an attempt to share an experience can turn into an argument and conflict – pushing each partner further apart (learn about three stages of healthy conflict resolution). This is when couples notice there is a problem and often seek out relationship advice.
Relationship advice for improving your listening
First, make sure that you are able to give them your full attention. If you can’t, suggest a time in the near future when you can and ask if your partner is able to wait. It’s important to commit to a specific time or it becomes more likely that the conversation never happens.
When your partner shares or expresses something, fully focus on them. Don’t immediately jump to a solution, another topic, or brush it off because you’ve heard it before. Look at them compassionately in the eye and make sure they know you heard them. It could be as simple as inserting one phrase like “I’m sure that was really difficult.” Or “I can see how that is very frustrating.” Empathize with your partner before moving on to solutions.
If you jump to solutions before your partner feels they have been heard, none of the solutions will seem to fit and defenses will be raised. This “fix it” mentality is most commonly associated with men, but can easily be done by women too. You feel as though the solution at hand is great and can prevent the strain, suffering, or emotion your partner has expressed.
But often, our partner already knows some of the solutions they can employ, but from their partner they are looking for empathy, someone to commiserate with, and someone to validate their feelings. They don’t need solutions, they need to feel heard and understood, to feel like someone is on their side.
Relationship advice for when you want your partner to listen
Being a skillful listener can also improve the way that you talk to your partner and share your own experiences. By knowing how to support your partner in feeling heard you can better understand the process that best facilitates your own listening and then apply that knowledge to make it easier for your partner to listen to you.
Begin by checking in with them and give them a choice as to whether or not they are ready to listen. If they can’t give you their full attention, either let them know that it is too important to wait or set up a specific time to talk.
Share your experience from a personal perspective and talk about how an event or behavior has impacted you – your thoughts and feelings. Avoid language that insinuates blame or triggers your partner’s defenses. Phrases that start with “you never,” “you always,” and “you make me” are sure to impede the other person’s ability to listen.
Once defenses have been raised it can take a while before that person is ready to listen again. If you notice this has happened, take a 20 minute break and then try to communicate again. You know when you have communicated from a personal perspective when it is impossible for the other person to deny your experience – it is how you feel and only you can truly know if your feelings are accurate.
This process can be empowering because you only have the ability to control your own experiences. Taking responsibility for the way that you feel provides an opportunity to create change. Allowing your partner to know how you feel can create a stronger sense of connection.
The best relationship advice is to focus on listening
Although many of the skills in this article are straightforward, they can be difficult to implement on your own. Listening is like any other skill and learning some practices with a supportive facilitator, such as a couples therapist, can help you become a better listener and positively impact your relationship. The ability to listen well and understand each other is paramount to a long lasting healthy relationship.
About the Author
Sasha Lustgarten is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (LMFT) at Well Clinic in San Francisco. He specializes in offering insightful inquiries into relationships, family and organizational systems, and individual psychology.