You’re not listening – why you might not be seeing eye to eye

Well folks, its been awhile. I apologize. There are lots of changes happening with my practice and my brain has been pretty busy. But, here I am. Bright eyed and filled to the brim with all the therapy things.

You know, being in a relationship is hard. I mean really, sometimes its exhausting. Trying to figure out what your partner wants, needs, feels, means…ugh it can be a bit much. But ultimately the good should be outweighing the hard stuff. You want to feel like your partner understands you, is there for you, listens to you, among other things.

Most of the couples I work with are not with me because things are wonderful. They come to me frustrated, exhausted, losing hope, irritated, and feeling misunderstood. Ask any couple why they have come to couple’s therapy and they will say “communication”.

Such a broad thing. So we talk about their communication – what they like, what isn’t working. Usually as the conversations continues the couple begins to enact those problem behaviors (in therapy speak that means that they just start talking to each other in the problematic way that they have been).

It can start with a complaint by one partner. Then the other partner comes back quickly with a solution. If I watch the person’s face who initially complained, there is sometimes a furrowing of the brow, an eye roll, or turning away from the other partner. They go back and forth with the other partner offering solutions and the other repeating the complaint in various ways.

They are both frustrated and continue to get frustrated. Sometimes this turns into a full-blown argument with “you never listen to me” coming through and other times it turns into a stalemate with nothing happening and both people feeling frustrated and looking at me expectedly.

This dynamic also has happened in my own relationship. *gasp*

I know I know, believe it or not all this therapy knowledge does not automatically make me an efficient or even good communicator in my personal life.

So for us the dynamic goes something like this:

Hubby: I want to lose weight.

Me: Do you want to run with me?

Hubby makes a disgusted face and huffs: No

Me: we should get you a gym membership close to work!

Hubby: Yea, but when would I use it?

Me: you could do it in the mornings.

Hubby:When, at 430a? That’s too early.

Me beginning to get frustrated: how about on your lunch break?

Hubby also beginning to get frustrated: there isn’t enough time.

And this conversations ensues with me giving amazing suggestions on how to fix this problem and him telling me why they aren’t going to work and then both of us ultimately getting mad. I mean, this conversation goes on a lot longer than this, typically, and has been a recurring conversation in our relationship.

These conversations do not go this way anymore.

I have stopped trying to solve his problems.

And it seems to be going great.

Let me explain. The problem with this dynamic is that I hear a problem and I see solutions. I’ve got my feet off the diving board and I am performing the most beautiful intricate dive that ever was – only problem is that there’s no water in the pool.

Poor hubby is not looking for solutions. He wants me to commiserate with him on how busy his life is (which it definitely is), how miserable it is to be unhappy with your physical activity level (agreed as well), and how difficult it can be to eat healthy (eh, mixed feelings on this, but what the hell, I’ll give it to him). He’s getting frustrated with me because I am missing an incredibly important step here.


I’m not letting him know I hear how hard it is for him. The funny thing with this is that I in no way operate like this in session. I think I am pretty good at hearing my clients and moving at their pace and at any sign of frustration when suggestions are offered, I back off and go back to validation and empathy. So this is a skill now that I try to use in my marriage and I think it makes a difference.

When I work with couples on this I will give them this little anecdotal story here and explain that they can’t work harder than their spouse when a problem or complaint is voiced. If you are getting frustrated with your spouse’s refusal to take your awesome suggestions or to turn their crappy mood around when you are trying to cheer them up, then you need to pull back a little and let them stew. Focus on letting them know you hear them by a lot of active listening.

That looks like head nodding and saying things like ” that sounds really crappy”,”I’m sorry you are going through this”, ” What a terrible feeling”.

For all of you out there that are feeling your “fix it” anxiety rising don’t worry I’ve got you covered. I am not in any way suggesting that you don’t actually help your partner try to feel better but just that you are aware of your pacing.  If you are curious as to whether or not they want suggestions, ask them.

“Is there anything I can do for you”, “I have some ideas about that, would you like to hear them” and so on and so forth. In the exercise example from above I usually respond to my hubby with something like ” can you think of any way that I can be helpful in making working out more accessible for you ” and that usually seems to be well received. Sometimes he wants to go to problem solving, and sometimes his response is something along the lines of “thanks but I’ve gotta figure it out myself”.

This is not a perfect solution. It doesn’t account for defensiveness in a discussion with your partner, but its a good place to start.

So slow down. Meet your partner where they are at and see if they feel like you have become a better listener. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to tell your partner that you don’t want a solution – that you just want them to listen.

And if you are having trouble figuring this all that? Yup. You got it – go see a therapist to get a little extra support!



4 thoughts on “You’re not listening – why you might not be seeing eye to eye

  1. Good advice – I agree that validation is so important –
    Another problem is hearing what is really being said – even repeating back “What I heard is …” doesn’t work for me (at least most of the time) because sometimes the other person WANTS to hear what they THINK they are hearing. Hmmm…

  2. Where have you been all my life???
    Great advice Laura. Our lives would have been a lot easier if I had that knowledge years ago. You are helping so many people out there…it is sad that you may never know how much your words help others. Thank you from all of us!

  3. Love this advice. I do try to “fix” everything and really need to slow down and listen.

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