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Show You Care Through How You Listen

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Couple Talking

Feeling understood and cared about is key in any happy relationship. When miscommunications occur, it’s often not the misunderstanding itself that causes the most problems, but rather the feeling of not being understood and of being alone. Only when your partner “gets” you can he or she truly love and be supportive of you. Otherwise your partner just loves and supports the person they think you are. This is a huge problem because the essence of a close relationship is loving your partner and feeling loved by them.

As the feeling of not really connecting becomes stronger, you lose the sense of being on the same team. You might try hard to explain yourself and recruit your partner to your side again; but your partner is likely to also feel alone and be more interested in getting you to understand them (and recruiting you to their side) – or they might be more focused on trying defend themselves against being hurt. In both situations, you are then in the position of working on different goals, which leads to feeling that you are working against each other.

Because this is a common problem, a mainstay of couples therapy is a technique called active listening. The purpose of it is for partners to let each other know that they are really listening, understanding the other’s perspective, and understand how the other feels.  By slowing down conversations to make sure that they are each understood before moving on, many miscommunications are corrected and – perhaps even more importantly – the partners feel understood.

An essential part of active listening is mirroring, which involves reflecting back what your partner is saying (or indirectly expressing) about the situation and their feelings. An example of this is: You sound really angry that I was late for dinner. It can be very helpful to clarify the situation. Do this by asking questions, such as: I can understand you being upset, but why are you so angry? There are a couple of reasons for clarifying. You want to get more information so you can fully empathize with your partner and you want your partner to know that you really are concerned and want to understand him or her.

Of course, good communication is a two-way street. When the sharing partner feels understood, it’s important that the listening partner can then share their experience and perspective. For instance, the partner who was angry might explain that she was that angry because her boyfriend had a history of being late, which felt disrespectful to her. Once her boyfriend shows that he is really listening and understands her feelings, it’s essential that she be open to listening to him. He can then explain that there was no excuse for his behavior and can promise to change it. But, of course, such conflicts are rarely so simple and easily resolved. Another scenario might be that he reminds her that he had not been late since they talked about the issue six months earlier and he promised to change. He might then go on to explain that the current situation was unavoidable.

Through this kind of caring and openness, you can keep your communication flowing. And, as long as you and your partner continue to work together, you will continue to feel connected. The result is that you can maintain a closeness that will make you happy together.

If you would like to join a general discussion about this topic on the Relationships and Coping Community, click here.

Photo: BananaStock
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