When Our Partners Can’t Listen

Most of the time when two people in a relationship feel unhappy part of the problem is that they don’t feel heard by their partner.  When we feel heard and understood we often feel validated and our problems seem to dissolve and we feel better.  If our partner can’t hear what’s troubling us or what we need we feel alone and isolated.

So if it’s that simple, why is it so hard for couples to do it?  Most of the couples I work with want to have a better relationship.  They come to counseling because they want to feel close and connected again.  Both people are usually pretty earnest about their intent.  They see what they want to have, but they are usually stumped on how to achieve it.

Sometimes they blame the other person because they think if their partner really loved them they would know how to make them happy.  Unfortunately many couples aren’t talking about what they want and need from their partner and that makes it difficult for the partner to know what to do.

Here’s what I see when couples can’t hear each other.  One person says how they feel about something, or some incident.  The person talking feels bad about what happened.  What they want is for their partner to understand their pain.  They want an audience from the person who knows them the best.  They want to feel like their partner gets what happened to them.  They might even want the partner to apologize. This means that the listener is not thinking about how guilty they feel for causing the pain.  This means that the listener is also not thinking of ways the partner has hurt them and waiting to respond.  But that’s usually what happens.  One person talks, and the other person waits to retort and sometimes retaliate.  No one is listening.

In order to feel heard, validated and get some resolution, the teller of the pain needs to just tell it to the person that may have caused it.  That’s it, nothing more.  This is part of the healing process that couples need to repair.  One pained person talks about what happened to them.  The other person listens without going into their pain.  Unfortunately that’s the dance that most couples fall into.  One person talks and the other person tops them.  This starts a back and forth with no winner and no end.  Both parties end up feeling exasperated, frustrated, drained and alone.

I help couples learn a new way to communicate.  Both people get their say, but they have to take turns.  It really doesn’t matter who goes first, but it does matter that the listener just do the job of listening so the talker gets heard.  This does not come naturally.  Most of us aren’t taught that sharing our pain actually helps us heal.  Many of us learn that we must fight to be heard, that we have to express our pain in order to get relief.  But that style usually leaves people feeling unhappy and alone.

Once couples learn these tools of being the talker and the listener they never feel alone in the relationship again.  They might even feel terrific, realizing that their mate really cares.


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