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How to Actively Listen to Your Spouse

Seek to Understand, Then Seek to be Understood

February 25, 2010

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.


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.

Where Do We Start?

Shifting Focus Away from Conflict to What We Have in Common

February 17, 2010

Couple's therapy often begins with a statement like, "My husband can get very angry over the smallest things. He doesn't scream or yell, but he reacts by withholding affection, not talking to me for days at a time and not taking care of his responsibilities. He claims he's not angry, but just needs time to recover from our argument. I just don't know what to do."

With some prodding, the husband may reply, "You know, it doesn't matter how much I give or how hard I try. It's never enough. She always wants more from me. She's always nagging. So, yeah, small things make me angry because it's just one thing after another; they build up. It never stops. I shut down so it doesn't blow up into something really ugly."

The couple is facing a seemingly intractable conflict of perspectives. Any attempt to justify feelings and encourage acceptance of the other's point of view typically goes nowhere, because each of them is convinced that he or she is right – and from their own perspectives, they are.

By definition, the blending of two distinct personalities into a functioning unit will involve struggle. But, the construct of marriage is truly the focal point of creation and needs to be expressed in a healthy way in order to fulfill G‑d's plan. It is the central relationship in the family and therefore central to life. Every time a man and woman join together, they recreate the primordial union of Adam and Eve by reuniting two halves of a soul separated at birth. While we are irresistibly drawn together to fulfill a cosmic purpose, G‑d deliberately created the two halves to be at odds with one another. Apparently there is something about the resolution of this conflict that pushes creation towards its climax.

It has been my experience - both as a husband and as a therapist - that conflict is best resolved by shifting focus away from the problems created by differences in personality and perspective, in favor of what works in the relationship. The goal then is to build on existing strengths. Even the worst relationship has its good moments when the couple is relaxed and getting along. But each partner can behave very badly indeed when they start to feel their buttons being pushed. If they are going to get anywhere they need to find a way to decrease their mutual feelings of vulnerability.

Healing starts when husband and wife recognize one another's soft spots and take responsibility for them. They need to find a starting point – at least one simple activity that won't trigger a bad reaction from either spouse; maybe even something neither of them has ever experienced before. This mutually enjoyable interaction creates a safe space for them to connect and frees up energy for problem-solving and healthy compromise. Because couples in conflict tend to focus on their differences and what sets them apart, it is of primary importance to rediscover what they have in common. They can learn to be loyal and stick up for each other when an opportunity arises and to show that they are somehow special to one another. Finally, they can start showing love by putting aside their personal desires in a way that demonstrates their intimate knowledge of their spouse. When they relate to each other in ways that reduce tension and reactivity, there is hope for improvement in the relationship.

I have seen this approach work many times because it realistically acknowledges that there are two sides to every story and that both partners have legitimate needs to be addressed. It is often a difficult (even agonizing) process, but G‑d is cheering us on and hoping we can deepen our relationship and become His true partners in creation.

How to Have a "Victorious" Marriage

And Why Criticizing Never Helps

February 12, 2010

Even in the best of marriages, a spouse's behavior can be irritating at times. Numerous studies have proven that criticizing a spouse for a certain behavior will cause an intensification of that behavior. For example, if a man criticizes his wife for being overweight, she will probably gain weight. If she criticizes him for not spending more time with her, he will probably spend more time away. This is because people who cherish their independence and want to preserve their identity will do the opposite of what others want as a way of saying, "You can't control me!" In addition, a person who feels hurt by criticism may consciously or unconsciously want to hurt back, signaling, "I'll get back at you for hurting me by doing what I know hurts you." Yet, no matter how much people hear how counter-productive criticism is, most will continue to criticize or use other "control tactics" in an effort to get their spouse to change.

Few people realize how difficult it is to change and how painfully slow the process is, far more evolutionary than revolutionary. In truth, what comes easily to one can be excruciatingly difficult for another. Yet people think that whatever is easy for them should be easy for others! A neat-freak thinks that anyone should be able to whip a kitchen into shape in a quarter of an hour, and cannot understand what the big deal is to put things in their place. An emotionally expressive person may not understand how difficult it is for some people to share their feelings or even to be aware of what they are feeling. A screamer may think he's being "honest," and saving himself from an ulcer by venting, not even realizing how painful it is for others to have to live with an explosive person.

When we experience a conflict with a spouse or child, we can take two steps to defuse the situation. First, acknowledge the other person's pain. Tell the person, "I know how hard it is to live with me and not get what you dreamed of."

The next step is to make a few simple self-disciplinary gestures each day and share the most minor "victories" with your spouse. This should be done not only to please the person, which is a wonderful goal, but also with the awareness that if G‑d gave you this spouse, then by making these gestures, you will grow spiritually. For example, a couch potato can say, "I actually took the stairs instead of the elevator! Hooray for me!" A highly introverted person can say, "Know what? I'll have a victory and go with you to that event instead of staying home." A chatterbox can say, "I'm having a victory and will not interrupt!"

Mina (all names have been changed) used to berate her husband for being stingy. He complained that she was wasteful and would mention the items she had purchased that he deemed unnecessary each time she came back from shopping. When she asked me what to do, I told her to tell him, "I turned off all the lights in order not to waste electricity. And I took a quick shower instead of a long one like I wanted." And she kept a list of what she wanted to buy and did not buy. By showing him the list, he no longer felt that his wishes were being ignored. He saw that she was sensitive to his fears of financial ruin and cheered her efforts to improve. Mina recently told me that she realizes that her husband is thrifty, not stingy, and knows that his concerns have validity. She is also proud that she, too, has become more frugal and more conscious of the need to conserve.

Simon knows that his wife is upset about his weight because she is worried about diabetes and heart disease. He's not ready to go completely healthy, but he can tell his wife, "I had a victory! I had only half a can of Coke instead of the whole thing." Or, "I wanted five cookies but only ate one!" In this way he lets her know that he does care about her feelings and does want to take charge of his health, even 1% of the time. Because she cheered his victories and didn't push him to go faster, he slowly began to change his habits.

So, for your own growth as well as to improve your relationships, let your spouse know, "I'm having a victory!"

  • "I turned off my cell phone so that I can give you all my attention."
  • "I'm choosing to go to sleep on time so that I can function tomorrow."
  • "I'm choosing to clean up right now instead of putting it off."
  • "This time, I'm going to be prompt and won't keep you waiting."
  • "I'm going to help a friend, even though it is difficult."
  • "I went for an interview even though I was nervous and didn't know the way."
  • "I am sticking to the speed limit."
  • "I'm not dithering over this decision any longer. I'm deciding and that's that."

Once you start making those little gestures and talking about your victories, your spouse may be willing to do so as well. I found this very effective with my own children, too. If a child wants you to be less uptight, tell him, "I'm having a victory and taking three deep, relaxing breaths right now."

May G‑d help us all improve our traits, thanks to the very people who we may be irritating. Of course, this only works when two people truly respect each other and want to improve. If not, then this work must be done on our own. Either way, G‑d cheers every step forward.

We connect to the Supernatural by doing the supernatural. It truly feels supernatural to do something that is against our nature.

Bogged Down in the Nitty-Gritty

February 5, 2010

Dear Tzippora,

My husband and I have a very loving relationship, but we don't work well together under pressure. When the going gets tough, we bicker. We return exhausted from work, and then have petty disagreements over who should do the dishes, hang the wash, or put the baby to sleep. We always resolve the disagreement before we go to bed, and promise to do better the next time, but somehow, we fall back into the same routine.

Bogged Down in the Nitty-Gritty

Dear Bogged Down,

The situation that you are describing is referred to by psychologists as "The Big Three." The big three refers to the three sources of conflict for married couples: who does the housework, how to divide up the childcare, and how to manage money. In other words, most marital conflict stems from the stress of dealing with everyday life.

Yet it sounds to me that despite being undone by the daily grind, you have managed to maintain a very loving relationship. Your letter is not a critical one, and it does not cast blame on anyone. Nevertheless, you have fallen into a common rut, and begun taking your frustration out on each other. This is not productive, and over time, this pattern can eat away at the foundation of your commitment to one another.

Therefore, it is important to break this destructive pattern, and find a more productive way of dealing with the stress of daily life. Choose a quiet time to sit down together, and make a record of your daily challenges. This means that you will need to be open with each other about what you see as the obstacles to true marital harmony. Then, brainstorm together for solutions.

If you both work fulltime, perhaps you should consider employing someone to assist with housework. If you tend to quarrel before dinner, pack a snack for the ride home, so you don't walk in the door irritable and hungry. Today's modern couples carry a high stress load, and they often find that their lifestyle creates a situation where they are permanently running on empty. The mentality of "I gave at the office" may leave one with little to give at home.

Yet in order for a living environment to be a true home, one must be willing to make the necessary investments at home. These investments include shared family meals, a clean and orderly environment, and a lifestyle that makes raising children a priority. These responsibilities are not a burden; rather, they are the true components of a Jewish home.

If you cannot figure out how to create the necessary time and energy for investing in your home under your current lifestyle, you may need to consider whether that lifestyle needs to be altered in order to allow you more time for "real life."

Thanks for writing,

Tzippora Price, M.Sc.

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