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active listening in a relationship

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Have you ever witnessed a couple who is clearly just not listening to each other? They’re in the same room but they’re clearly—emotionally—a million miles apart. They are talking parallel to one another, but they aren’t having a conversation. They’re having side-by-side monologues, but this sure isn’t a dialogue. You almost feel like they’d be saying exactly what they were saying, even if the other one wasn’t in the room. It’s sad, really, but you see it all of the time, especially in couples who have been together for a long time.

 

Listening is one of the main ingredients to a solid connection. We feel close to our partner by hearing what they’re saying, picking up on the underlying emotion, and empathizing with that emotion. And we need to simply listen to our partner’s updates to know what’s going on with them, and to know how we should behave, how we can help, and how we fit into the picture of their individual lives. But so many couples just stop listening to each other eventually. Listening is actually pretty hard—like really listening. It’s not just about taking off your headphones, or turning down the volume on the TV. It’s about being fully present when the other person talks, and clearing space in your mind to take in the information he or she is providing.

 

Listening in the beginning of a relationship—when you’re just giddy and want so badly to fall in love—is easy. But nobody has the energy to be a great listener for decades or a lifetime. So don’t be hard on yourself if you find yourself slacking off in the listening department. Everybody does it. It is important, however, to understand why it happens. Either one of you could be the culprit (and it’s probably both of you).

 

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Rhetorical questions

“Do you think it’s a good idea to not run the garbage disposal for several days and let the place stink up?” “What did you think the gas bill would look like after you left the heat on all night for two weeks?” “Would you say that this, right here, in front of the front door, is a good place to leave this pile of bags?” Ah yes, the rhetorical questions we start to ask our partners when we get frustrated.

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Why it discourages listening

If you start asking your partner lots of rhetorical questions, he’ll feel disrespected. It feels like you’re his mom, and he’s a little kid getting in trouble. If many of the words that come out of our mouth are rhetorical questions, your partner will start to think, “I don’t have to listen when my partner speaks because she’s already answered her own question. Answering would just be demeaning at this point.”

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Negativity

“My job sucks,” “This apartment is a disaster,” “All of our friends are moving away,” “The neighborhood is going to sh*t.” Have you been listening to yourself enough lately? And have you been saying positive things or negative things? Often, without realizing it, we just start saying the little negative thoughts we have out loud. Of course, if we didn’t have those thoughts in the first place, when we did think out loud, it wouldn’t be so negative. And there’s no good excuse to be so negative.

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Why it discourages listening

Everyone is doing their best to keep their head up. You have a responsibility to your partner to be positive about this life that you’re building together, so he doesn’t feel like he’s hitched his wagon to one going downhill (aka your wagon). If you’re always being negative about your life, your partner will start to tune you out because he’s already fighting the tough battle of having a good attitude, and doesn’t need your negativity poisoning that.

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Repetition

You keep complaining about the same thing over and over again. That annoying thing your mom does. That thing your friend does that pisses you off. How unhappy you are at your job. How much somebody should really fix that broken piece of the shoe rack. You’re a broken record, always going on about the same thing.

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Why it discourages listening

Nobody wants to listen to somebody complain about something they have the control to change. Your partner is there for you, and wants to hear you vent, but not repeatedly about the same thing. There comes a time when someone can think, “Okay, I heard about this last week. I lent my ear. I gave it my energy. Now it’s up to you to do something about it so I don’t have to hear about it anymore. And, so you’re happier.”

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Reaching an impasse

Perhaps every time you have a certain discussion, it leads to the same fight, and you get stuck in the same place. You reach an impasse. You know that one topic gets you two worked up (politics? His ex? Your conservative parents?), you both have your feelings about it, and you can’t see eye-to-eye. So when you bring it up, your partner tunes you out and doesn’t respond.

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Why it discourages listening

If you both refuse to budge even an inch on certain topics, then you’ll also both tune one another out when the other brings up that topic. Perhaps it is a good idea to either A) finally decide not to go there or B) open up to the idea of compromising/seeing things your partner’s way. If you’re both just incredibly stubborn, you’ll stop listening to each other, because you feel like, “What’s the point in listening to him? He’s not going to listen to what I have to say on the matter.”

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All statements are critical

“Those pants don’t match that shirt.” “You shouldn’t talk to your mom that way.” “You should stand up to your boss more.” “I read the draft of your screenplay—the dialogue needs to be tightened up a lot.” When we care about someone, we can accidentally show that by becoming critical. We just want them to have the best life, and so we point out ways they can do that, but it can all come off as criticism.

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Why it discourages listening

If you need to give your partner a note, always lead with something positive. “I read your screenplay. I love the plot twists. Scene descriptions are beautiful. It’s such a fun story. One little thing you may consider fixing is…” See how that sounds so much better than just coming in hot with the critique? If you only point out the things your partner does wrong, he’ll stop listening to you, because he’ll feel that you just look for the bad stuff and don’t even acknowledge the things he does right.

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A general disregard

Maybe, when you want to discuss how to do something with your partner, he knows that, in the end, you’re just going to do what you want, anyways. Let’s say, for example, you want to talk about how you two should decorate your living room. You have some ideas, and want to know what he thinks, but he knows you just want him to agree with you, and you’ll fight him on anything that doesn’t go with your ideas.

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Why it discourages listening

If your partner starts to get the feeling that you only listen to his input to be polite—to give him he illusion that he’s heard—before you just bully him into doing things your way, he won’t even listen when you start the discussion. He knows where this is going, and it will wind up the same way whether you have this talk or don’t.

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He/she started it

The most common reason someone stops listening to his partner is that he feels she stopped listening to him, first. It can be a dizzying series of he/she started it. But that’s not helpful, of course. You can fall into a rhythm of self-centered thinking where you feel like, your partner doesn’t help energize you, by listening to you and talking you through things, so, if he isn’t giving you energy, why should you give him energy by listening to him?

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Someone needs to rise up

Like with almost any relationship dispute, the goal shouldn’t be to be right: it should be to be happy. Sometimes, you have to lead by example and be the good listener, even if your partner has been a bad one. Show him how good it feels when you tune back in, and what the relationship can be when you listen. It should make him want to do the same back for you, if he’s mature and empathetic. Sometimes, you have to stop keeping score over who has or hasn’t been the best partner, and just be the best partner you can be, to breathe energy back into this relationship.

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Listening is everything

The moment you start making micro decisions like, “I can tune my partner out when he talks about this” or “I don’t have to pay attention when he talks to me like that” is the moment the relationship begins to unravel. Tell your partner if you don’t like the way he speaks to you about certain things so he can change and then you will be more motivated to listen. On the flipside, be conscious of your tone and what sorts of vibes you’re sending out into your relationship. When you speak, ask yourself how you’d feel if your partner spoke to you that way.

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