Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Do You Listen to Your Spouse?


Hopefully your answer is, "yes, of course, I always listen to my spouse." But would your spouse agree? Ask him or her and listen to the answer! If the answer to the title question is "no" or "sometimes," your marriage may be in trouble. In this article I will discuss techniques to increase meaningful listening and communication to help dissipate arguments and improve the marriage relationship.

Think back to a situation in which you felt accepted and understood in your conversation with someone else. You felt affirmed when you felt the other person was fully engaged and listening to you, thoroughly understood you and was able to discuss your point of view. You probably left the conversation with a positive glow and a feeling of being appreciated even if the other person had a different point of view. As you think back to this situation, you may realize that you are picturing a date or social engagement. Rarely will you be picturing a scene in your kitchen where you and your spouse may be trying to decide on a pressing issue both tired from the workday, struggling to do the dishes, help with the homework and put the children to bed. "Active listening" can help defuse ongoing marriage stress, but you have to put the children to bed first.

Simply put, active listening is the process of putting time and effort into understanding communication from another person. Ordinary listening is rarely active listening. To make this distinction, pay attention to what is going on in your mind when you are listening to someone else. Most likely, you take in an initial part of what the other person is saying and then start thinking about your response and waiting for the pause so that you can respond with your thoughts. When asked to report the details of what the other person has been saying, " listeners" often realize they were not truly listening, nor have they absorbed the totality of the ideas and feelings of the other person. This is especially true during an argument, where perceived criticism invokes immediate defensiveness which escalates on both parts. In order to listen actively, the listener must learn to inhibit his or her own responses and truly think about/consider the point of view of the other person. When this is accomplished, then the listener can give a meaningful response to the speaker. If you are having trouble practicing this skill with your spouse, try it when listening to the radio or TV. You'll find it will be especially difficult to censor your responses if you are listening to a commentator or politician you disagree with, but believe me this will help you learn the skill so that you can use it later in a disagreement with your spouse.

You can try the "speaker-listener" technique in a conversation where emotions are running high or in an argument with your spouse. Even if you do not end up with an agreement, both marriage partners can feel validated by the understanding and attention of their spouse. When active listening happens, the problem is more likely to be resolved without the high level of conflict which usually accompanies marital arguments. In using this technique, you can use a pencil as the "microphone" signaling who has the floor for speaking. When the speaker has the microphone the task is to explain the speaker's thoughts and feelings about an issue. The job of the listener is only to listen until the microphone is passed, then the listener's task is to repeat what he or she has heard about the speaker's ideas. The microphone may pass back and forth between the speaker and listener until the speaker feels fully understood. Then the roles are reversed, with the former listener becoming the speaker. If the issue has several parts, the microphone can be passed back and forth with each person having an opportunity to speak their ideas while the listener has no role other than to listen attentively and summarize the speaker's position. Of course there must be an agreement to share the time so that no one dominates the conversation. At the end of this process both participants should feel that they have been understood and emotionally validated. The couple may find that they in fact agree with each other, that they can use this understanding as a springboard for problem-solving, or in other cases can agree to disagree. Although "active listening" is a valuable skill, remember that it is only part of the skills necessary to maintain a quality marriage relationship.