Unfortunately, marriage partners are not always on the same page, as we are different people who see things differently. In young families, conflicts over how we handle children, money, intimacy, housework, extended family or our visions for the future come with the turf. Sometimes we hold things in, but these issues need to be discussed in ways that lead to positive outcomes.
An exercise called “Couple’s Dialog,” part of a form of marriage therapy founded by Harville Hendrix, aims to help partners communicate calmly when talking about emotionally charged issues. It’s goal is to ensure partner’s treat each other’s feelings with the utmost sensitivity and respect. The dialog is not a conversation. One partner simply listens — and only listens — while the other speaks. It is an opportunity for the speaker to really feel heard about feelings that have been festering and creating resentments without having to worry about emotional reactions like defensiveness, criticality, and anger on their partner’s part.
So, find time for an uninterrupted half hour at a location where both partners are fully present and calm. Then, follow these four dialog rules:
• Let your partner speak without interruption. It’s rare to have the experience of being listened to with total interest and concentration — and it feels great. When you, the listener respond only with encouraging remarks like, “Tell me more,” or, “What else?” it’s easy for the speaker to get those pent-up feelings out.
• Show that you understand by reflecting back the essence of what was said. This step cannot be taken lightly, as it creates safety for the speaker. Listen and, at appropriate times, interject something like, “So you’re saying that…” or, “If I understand right, you said…” followed by a short summary of the emotions expressed. Once the speaker agrees that you do understand what’s being said, ask for more. If you got it wrong, ask for a repeat and try again to reflect back correctly until your partner feels that you do get it accurately and completely.
• Be empathetic and communicate that empathy. If the relationship is going to include ongoing, open communication, there must be a reward for exposing those private feelings. Your partner’s greatest reward is to see that you can understand and empathize without reacting.
• Validate your partner’s feelings by expressing that it’s not crazy to feel that way. It’s no doubt different from your own take on things, but reply with, “You know, it’s helpful to see it through your eyes; I never thought of it that way.”
When your partner has gotten it all out, a good response is simply “thank you” — a way of expressing appreciation for being so vulnerable. You can say things like: “That wasn’t so easy to hear, but I’m glad to know what you’re feeling” or “Let me sit with this information for a while and we’ll talk again soon.”
Being a successful listener is not always easy: the urge to present your own side, and to react defensively are hard to combat. Avoiding reactions like these on your part take containment and discipline, but the reward for following the dialog rules is that they bring great benefits. However, with all its challenges, being a good listener is actually much easier than being a successful speaker when it comes to sharing emotional issues.
Next time we’ll talk about skills for the speaker. Meanwhile, practice the listening skills and notice what it does for the relationship.
Dr. Joan Emerson is a New York psychologist who specializes in couples therapy. Visit her website at www.JoanEmerson.com.