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Keeping Your Relationship Thriving, Part 1: Up Your Listening Game

How many times have you heard “relationships take effort?” Was this advice offered up smugly, with one of those close-mouthed grins of sympathy? Maybe you nodded furtively in response and vowed to remember date nights no matter how busy you got. Wait, what? Date nights are not the magic elixir. Don’t get me wrong, time together is a great idea. But for many couples I see, initially a date night would lead to a fight or boredom. What can couples do to keep their relationship thriving? And by “do” I mean do some-of-the-time and imperfectly, so take a deep breath right now, for this is a shame-free zone!

First we have to dispel some misguided couples myths that steer well-intentioned efforts in the wrong direction. Couples across the board, from those hitting a mild speed bump to couples in crisis and everyone in between, share these faulty ideas about relationship. These faulty ideas can be summarized in three myths: I know my partner so well I don’t need to hear them, positive feelings should be automatic, and my relationship shouldn’t require planning. I will cover listening in this first of a three-part series on how to keep your relationship thriving.


Delete These Relationship Myths From Your Memory Banks

  1. I don’t need to take the time to listen deeply to you anymore, because I already know you.
  2. The positive feelings should automatically flow between us because we love each other.
  3. Relationships shouldn’t involve systemized and organized planning. That is so unromantic.

Let me tackle myth number one, “I don’t need to take the time to listen deeply to you anymore, because I already know you.” Couples undervalue how important really good listening is. They undervalue it because they think they know their partner and won’t hear anything new by listening.

Every couple struggles to listen well. Why? Well, there are a few reasons. I won’t be focusing on attachment for this article but you can read more about it here. Instead I will focus on behavior. Most of us aren’t trained to listen with discovery in mind. We engage in three forms of selfish listening: defensive listening, utilitarian listening or fix-it listening. Defensive listening is like the bull and matador ready for battle. That snarky comment or vicious blame is on the ready to charge the matador. Fix-it listening is listening to solve. Imagine the speaker is narrating their story but the listener interrupts to finish the ending for the narrator. A fixer actually takes over the story with their fixing. Utilitarian listening is attentive listening offered up only when the information being discussed is beneficial to the listener. All three forms of listening are about the listener, not the speaker. It is a self-focused style of listening that makes little room for your partner to reveal who they are to you.

How can you up your listening game?

Remind yourself that you are not in a bullfight. Your brain, namely your amygdala, is making a lot of this shit up about your partner being a crazy _____. Blame it on your brain, not yourself or your partner. To get out of the imaginary bull ring, change up the metaphor. Instead of a bull fight, when your partner is speaking, imagine you are watching them paint an abstract painting. Your job is to pay attention with the intent to discover something new, understand them more deeply and feel the world from their eyes. Even if they talk about you, depersonalize everything that comes out of your partner’s mouth. This is really hard and will take practice. We all get this wrong more than half the time. Keep telling yourself “everything I am hearing is data about this person, not personal to me.” If you have to, when they say something about you that is hard to hear, pretend like they are talking about someone else so you can digest what they are sharing from their point-of-view. Don’t believe your brain when it tells you you are in a bullfight. If you can’t get out of a reactivity cycle, time and practice (in therapy) will help.

Let go of fixing. When you view abstract art, you aren’t going to go up and paint over the painting right? You study the painting and notice as much as you can. You pay attention to what gets moved inside of you. Listening to our partner from a place of discovery is letting them vent and digest what they are sharing without interrupting or finishing the painting. It means we allow for silence and sit still in the hardship of what they might be sharing. It means we feel a little bit of their angst. They are the narrator. Let them finish their own story. Don’t finish it for them. You can empathize but offering solutions is finishing their story. Just wait. Do this a couple times and I bet you will start to notice some surprising closeness emerge even though you did nothing more than keep quiet.

Initiate Time To Listen. Utilitarian listeners are notorious for perking up only when they can benefit from what is being shared. If you have this tendency, put discovery listening in your calendar and initiate some time to listen for the sake of discovering who your partner is in this moment in time. You may be tempted to take the conversation into a direction that interests you. Catch yourself and simply follow the speaker by reflecting back to them what you are hearing and continue to let them lead. This will be uncomfortable. Most utilitarian listeners were modeled this kind of selfish listening, so it is wired into your body memory, but once you practice, the warmth and connection you will feel emanating from your partner will motivate you to keep it up.

Discovery listening is the glitter for your sparkle, the polish for your shine or the best damn foreplay that ever was. Discovery listening is selfless listening that is about finding out who this partner of yours is in this moment in time. Listening this way allows you to reignite excitement and freshness over and over again in this long term relationship of yours. You can get out of the selfish listening pitfalls of defensive listening, fix-it listening or utilitarian listening with practice. Just remember, small shifts are big shifts. The next time you go out on date, find out who this masterpiece is sitting across from you. Notice the colors, brush strokes and stand back, in the awkward silence and notice more.

If you have questions about discovery listening, or any other questions about coupling and relationships, Psyched is now offering a bi-monthly webinar/conference call series where you can pose questions to three of our couples therapists free, live and anonymously. Register here.

Traci Ruble

Traci Ruble

Traci is a therapist and the CEO of PSYCHED & Managing Director of Sidewalk Talk. Her therapy work is centered around working with couples and individuals working on their relationships. Her many years in corporate life make her a good match for executives and leaders.

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