Do you really hear your partner?
One of the benefits of marriage counselling is that during sessions, you have your counsellor to help you hear each other correctly and listen for any miscommunications. Frequently in relationships we hear what we think we hear, not what the other person is actually trying to say.
Let me explain.
All of us hear the words our partner is saying, we add that to the body language we are reading, then throw in a good dose of our expectations of what our partner is communicating based on our experiences and our emotional standpoint. And there we have what we think our partner just said to us. Sometimes it is right, sometimes it is wrong.
I am going to talk about imaginary person, Angela.
When Angela is speaking to someone who she has no emotional attachment to and no history with, she has no expectations of how they will behave based on past behaviour. There is no assumption around what they will say next. She is not expecting them to be mean. She will just listen. She will likely hear what they are trying to say. The message will be received clearly and correctly. Usually. Some of this depends on Angela’s self-esteem but that is a different topic that what I am covering today.
Work colleague: “You look a bit tired”.
Angela: “Yes, I had a busy weekend. How was your weekend?”
Now this is a straightforward communication. There is no message heard other than the obvious observation.
Now let’s look at Angela speaking to her partner of eight years. Angela and Rob have two children and both work. Most of their energy goes into looking after the kids and working. They get on well most of the time but don’t put a lot of work into the relationship or each other. They have a reasonable relationship but not what we would consider a healthy relationship.
They will have little arguments but nothing significant that causes them to seek marriage counselling.
The same communication above might play out like this.
Rob: “You look a bit tired”.
Angela: “What you think I’m looking old? I had a hard weekend with the kids running them everywhere while you were out with your mates at the footy. Of course, I look tired, maybe you should do a bit more around here”.
Now this is a response I am familiar with in the counselling room. Pretty much every single day in some form. What is given as a genuine statement with no other meaning, is often taken in a negative way.
In their home, Rob and Angela may not speak for the rest of the evening or they may escalate to a fight. They may just sweep this under the rug and keep going but both feeling unhappy.
In marriage counselling sessions, I can stop the conversation and ask Angela what she just heard Rob say.
Me: “Angela, you seem upset by what Rob just said, what message did you hear”?
Her response will be something like, “He was having a go at me for not looking after myself properly. He tells me I should get my hair done or go get a facial because he thinks I am looking old. This is just another way of him pointing that out”.
I then ask Rob, “Is that what you were saying to Angela, is that what you meant”?
Rob will likely answer, “Gosh no! She always thinks I am trying to be mean and having a go at her, but I want her to do those things for her. I go to the footy and she used to love doing facials and that girl stuff, so I just try and get her to go. She always looks good to me. When I said she was tired, I just meant she looked tired which isn’t a surprise because she had a lot on with the kids”.
This kind of interaction is incredibly common in relationships. It can have all sorts of outcomes. From minor disagreements through to full blown fights. It can and does, overtime, erode relationships.
In this example, Rob might get to the point where he doesn’t say anything much at all to Angela for fear of getting it wrong. Angela on the other hand, may start to withdraw as she feels he is no longer interested in her as he never speaks to her.
I often meet couples at this point. When they have such a distorted view of what the other thinks and of their relationship, that we have a lot to do to change the negative views that are the foundation of the relationship.
So, how do you make sure you are hearing your partner correctly and not adding your own negative narrative to the communication?
An easy first step to this is to simply listen and then repeat back to your partner what you think they said. The message you heard.
Rob: “You look tired”.
Angela: “Are you saying that I look old?”
Rob: “Gosh no, I know you had a big day with the kids, I was seeing if you were tired, and I was going to offer to get dinner tonight.”
Far from an attack, often our partners are being nice to us.
If you hear a negative, as the question. Rarely, if a relationship is still healthy enough to want to be in it, do we say mean things to each other.
Hearing the wrong message is a very common in relationships. If you think this may be part of your relationship, please try and start addressing this now. Listening and hearing the real message is a vital skill for a healthy relationship.
If you want to learn more about communication, check out this article here.
As always, here if you need.
Be kind to you!