During our recent counseling session, Jill, 42, expressed concern that she was feeling dissatisfied in her marriage to Logan, 44, and said they had been drifting apart for a few years.
Jill put it like this:
“Logan says he loves me, but he comes home late a lot, and we rarely spend time together. He still approaches me for sex sometimes, but I just don’t feel like being intimate anymore because we’re not close. He seems very distracted and doesn’t listen to me. It feels like he wants me to keep my problems to myself, so I don’t bother to share anything personal with him anymore.”
Logan replied, “I try to show Jill that I care, but it seems like she’s always criticizing me and points out what I do wrong. She’s not attracted to me sexually and is always turning me down.”
It means that you’re willing to suspend your own concerns, needs, and thoughts temporarily so that you can be fully present with your partner and tune into the meaning of their words, tone of voice, and non-verbal communication.
In essence, the listener is validating what their partner is saying and helping the speaker feel a sense of being understood and being close and connected.
Likewise, with active listening, the listener is checking to make sure they’ve accurately heard and interpreted their partner. This behavior reduces the chance of misunderstandings and disagreements.
It’s especially important to listen actively to your partner if they seem upset about a problem in your relationship or family, and you’ve been arguing a lot.
For instance, during our counseling sessions, Logan practiced active listening strategies when Jill expressed concern about her negative feelings towards her sister.
From her perspective, Jill’s sister Karen rarely showed interest in her since she started a new job and stopped inviting Jill to do things socially.
During our counseling session, Logan said, “It sounds like you’re feeling left out by Karen and miss her company. That must feel awful.
We have the new indoor grill that you bought me for Christmas. Maybe we can invite Karen and Steve over to dinner some weekend, and I can cook.”
By practicing active listening in our sessions over a few months, Jill was beginning to reconnect with Logan, and he reaped the benefits of seeing Jill respond in a more loving, open way to him.
Also, by offering to cook dinner for her sister and brother-in-law, she felt nurtured and supported by Logan.
Active listening is not the same thing as giving advice
Couples need to realize that active listening is not the same thing as giving advice.
While we might perceive ourselves as being helpful by giving instructions or explaining how to do something, our partner might interpret this behavior as our always needing to “be right.”
We might know we are right, but ask yourself: Is it more important to be right or to be happy? Is it worth destroying a relationship by trying to prove you’re right?
There’s nothing wrong with giving advice when our partner asks for it, but most suggestions are unsolicited and come across as keeping score rather than being helpful.
For instance, if Logan had simply given Jill advice about how to deal with her sister becoming distant, rather than actively listening to her, she might have felt discounted rather than supported.
Further, invalidation tends to make difficult problems worse in marriage.
For instance, when Jill expressed disappointment one night because Logan was working long hours, and Logan said, “You just need to chill because my job demands my full attention” it hurt Jill’s feelings and made her feel excluded from Logan’s life.
Over time, when Jill felt upset by Logan’s behavior or words, she wouldn’t always share it with him because he would jump to giving her advice, and she knew she’d feel judged or criticized by him.
Most people rush to trying to solve their partner’s problems by offering suggestions and skip over validation. What Jill craves is being listened to and validated.
At times, she continues to feel challenged by her sister and Logan, working long hours. However, if Logan validates her feelings by acknowledging that he “gets it” and loves her, Jill will be more likely to share her thoughts and feelings with him and feel understood.
The important part is validation. After all, fixing a problem comes later, and most people are capable of solving their own problems. What they want is to be seen and heard.
Tips for active listening
Stay focused on the present and tune into the meaning behind what your partner is saying by paying attention to the tone of their voice and body language.
Set your own agenda aside and really listen to your partner. Try to put your own issues and worries out of your mind so that your partner has your full attention. This is especially important if they are upset about a family or relationship issue.
Check-in with your partner and ask them to explain any points you’re uncertain about to make sure you’re hearing what they’re saying and understanding their point of view. Asking questions such as “Can you please tell me more about that” can help you can gain clarity.
Don’t rush in and try to fix your partner’s problem. Listen to his or her concerns and let them know you understand by saying things like, “It must be upsetting when your supervisor doesn’t have time to meet with you.”
Keep in mind that using active listening and validation isn’t our typical way of communicating, and it may feel awkward at times.
However, if a married couple agrees to use active listening and validation, these are powerful ways to enhance communication about sensitive topics.
For instance, even when Jill and Logan are both feeling stressed if they try to understand each other’s experience, they can focus on the big picture – their goal of having a strong, loving partnership!
Sometimes couples are so absorbed on their problems; they forget to see their partner as a person.
You can strengthen your relationship by learning more about your partner and discussing their thoughts and feelings about a situation or topic.
There are many benefits of active listening, and if you spend more time listening and validating each other’s feelings, you’re on the path to building authentic love and improving the quality of your marriage.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Terry Gaspard MSW, LICSW has been a therapist and relationship expert for over 30 years. Her work focuses on helping individuals, couples, and families become more resilient, build stronger relationships and marriages, and recover after break-up and divorce. She is a contributor to nine websites including The Gottman Institute Relationship Blog and the author of the award-winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents Breakup and Enjoy a Happy Long-lasting Relationship.
Terry?s book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020. Follow Terry at her website.