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How to Actively Listen to Your Spouse

How to Actively Listen to Your Spouse

Seek to Understand, Then Seek to be Understood

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A common source of discord between a husband and wife is the expectation that one spouse will gladly go along with the other's desires, including unspoken ones. Here is a clue to unraveling the mystery of peace in the home: Accept the fact that no matter how wonderful your beloved spouse is, your every wish is not his/her command, and vice versa.

Especially in the early years of marriage, partners may fail to give each other credit for being unique individuals. But no two people are made from the same mold.

The recognition of differences need not be a source of frustration. In fact, it fosters personal growth. By seeking to understand your partner's viewpoint before expecting to have yours understood, you will reap the reward of a happier marriage.

Why Spouses May Neglect to Understand Each Other

When our partner brings up a sensitive subject, we may feel threatened, afraid that we will be expected to change, give up a bad habit, or do something uncomfortable.

For example, a husband thinks his wife has too much "clutter" in the garage that she regards as treasure. He says he wants to park the car in the garage, which means getting rid of some of her "junk." As soon as she gets the gist of what he wants, she may interrupt him to explain that she doesn't complain about his piles of newspapers in the living room. Or she may defend herself with a more strident accusation, unconsciously thinking that the best defense is a good offense. Before they know it, the conversation can escalate into a blaming argument. Alternatively, one partner may give in and be left feeling resentful.

When a husband and wife listen to each other empathically instead of defensively, they foster a closer connection. When they listen defensively, they create distance.

Anyone who wants more shalom bayit, harmony in marriage, will do well to learn a communication technique called Active Listening1 .

Active Listening Fosters Connection: The Six Steps

Active listening involves more than just lending an ear. It requires complete concentration, giving space to the other person, and not interjecting your own thoughts and feelings at the wrong moment.

First, make sure that the conversation about a potentially sensitive topic occurs when both of you are calm and when distractions are unlikely. Then follow these six steps:

1. Stop what you are doing. Take the necessary time to really listen to your partner.

2. Look at your partner. Eye contact expresses that you are ready to listen. Body language and facial expression also indicate an interest in listening. Focus on your partner. Try to push everything else from your mind.

3. Listen to your partner. Listen without interrupting, arguing, or giving advice. If you are having a strong emotional reaction to the words, notice it. Breathe in and out slowly a few times to center yourself. You will have a chance to express yourself later, but for now, just listen.

4. Rephrase or repeat what your partner says. This step encourages us to be good listeners. It also helps us understand the other person's meaning and feelings. Rephrasing also helps the partner recognize and clarify his or her feelings. Start with, "I hear you saying ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­__________________."

5. Always check with your partner whether your interpretation of what was communicated is accurate. Ask, "Am I understanding what you are saying correctly?" The speaker should clarify his or her meaning if the partner's interpretation seems inaccurate, after which step 4 should be repeated.

6. Be empathic. Seek to understand your spouse's emotions in the situation she or he is describing. Try to put yourself in your spouse's position. Save your advice for another time.

Reversing Speaker-Listener Roles

After completing this exercise to the point that your spouse clearly feels understood by you, you may want to express your viewpoint on the topic. If so, reverse roles. You now share your thoughts and feelings, and your partner gets to practice active listening.

Get Ready for Peace in the Home

Some people are afraid that if they are empathic they will need to give in or agree with their partner. It is important to recognize that what we all want most is to feel understood. The goal is not to necessarily resolve an issue immediately, but to clarify both viewpoints of a situation. Once partners feel understood, they are more likely to find a solution that works for both of them over time.

Keep in mind that, as the sages say, "words from the heart enter the heart." So, listen first in order to understand your spouse's thoughts and feelings. Next, express your own heartfelt message, with sensitive "I" statements that will encourage your partner to listen, as you did. Then, enjoy the peace that you are bringing into your marriage.

Footnotes
1.

Some of these ideas about active listening are from the manual, Changing Destructive Adolescent Behavior, A Parent Workbook, by Ralph Fry, Susan Mejia Johnson, Pete Melendez, Dr. Roger Morgan, copyright 2002, page 141. Distributed by Parent Project, Inc.


Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW, author of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted, is a psychotherapist, speaker, and marriage and relationships educator.
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Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW San Rafael, CA October 26, 2010

Miriam Adahan's Comment I have admired Miriam Adahan's work for many, many years and am thrilled to see her wise comment on my article. I will add, as a therapist, that some people do have trouble being empathic, typically because they did not receive enough of it when very young. Psychotherapy with a skilled, compassionate professional fosters empathy in such a person for himself and for others. Reply

Miriam Adahan March 7, 2010

EMPATHY IS THE TEST OF LOVE Useful information! Empathy is the basis of love. If your partner is not willing to do the above, then you cannot build trust. Empathy is the test! Reply

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Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW, author of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted, is a psychotherapist, speaker, and marriage and relationships educator.
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