Relationship studies have recognized one common trait among strong couples, their habit of ‘being responsive to their partner’s needs’. Effective communication forms the key tool here that enables couples to be aware of their partner’s thoughts and feelings and provide support physically, mentally and emotionally.
Many misinterpret communication with just ‘expressing and sharing’ but when you have no one who listens to your ideas and opinions, the whole purpose of communication fails.
We keep on hearing different voices and sounds the whole day, but what we are mostly engaging in is passive listening.
As the name suggests, passive listening occurs when you instinctually respond to someone’s utterance without consciously deciding to do it, like a knee-jerk reflex. On the contrary, when you actively listen, you make the conscious choice to focus completely on one person and pay attention to their words and other non-verbal cues.
For relationships to thrive, couples need to shift their approach from passive to active, as the former doesn’t reflect a partner’s complete attention on the other.
Also called reflected listening, active listening has been identified by many studies as a valuable skill that leads to better understanding and conversational satisfaction between two people. Even Carl Rogers, the famous psychologist of the 20th Century, considered ‘active listening to be at the heart of every relationship’.
So, for those wanting to a better partner, below are some tips that will help to become an active listener first.
Listen to Understand
As years pass after marriage, couples develop the habit of tuning out what the other one says. But it’s important while listening to your partner, to try to put yourself in their shoes.
When your husband wants to vent out his frustrations after handling a difficult project, or your wife wants to talk about her argument with a colleague, listen and try to see from their perspective as to how those things might have affected them.
When you listen with empathy and try to understand them, it opens up a window for you into their world, while your partner would feel more loved and emotionally secure.
As per a study by Faye Doell carried out in 2003, compared to whose “listened to respond”, people who “listened to understand” felt greater contentment in their interpersonal relationships.
So, focus on understanding, rather than responding.
One of the best ways to show that you are trying to understand your partner is by responding empathetically, with sentences like, “ So what you are saying is…” or “How are you feeling now?”
Listen Without Interrupting
When you interrupt when your spouse is sharing their feelings, it not only breaks their flow of thought but often reflects your disrespect for their opinions. It’s important to listen silently and let your partner finish whatever they are saying.
If interrupting is a common habit for you, keep reminding yourself to be quiet. You can even try different gestures like loosely placing your fingers on your lips or putting your chin on your hand to remind yourself not to speak in between.
Listen with an Open Mind
As a human, it’s understandable if you have your own mindset and opinions. What’s not understandable is if you force those opinions on your partner while they are trying to share ideas that differ from yours.
In the scenario where you are locked in a stalemate and your partner’s ideas seem to contradict with yours, put your opinions aside long enough for your partner to finish. The best practice in such situations is to try to understand why your partner thinks a particular way.
For instance, if your wife is sharing her thoughts about the monthly financial spending and you don’t consider it practical, don’t just ignore her or shut her down. Rather, try to understand why she thinks her idea would help with the household or respond with statements like “can you explain why do you believe so?” It may just happen that you would realize her ideas work too.
Listen without Distractions
There might be times when your partner is in desperate need of your attention and may say something like, “I need to talk about something…”. In those situations, stop whatever you are doing and give complete attention to your spouse.
Look into their eyes, try to read their non-verbal cues, pay attention to their words and set aside anything that can serve as a distraction. So, whenever you feel that your partner needs to share something important, get rid of all distractions.
Switch off the T.V, silent your phone, let your kids know that mom and dad are having a serious discussion and pay 100% attention to what your partner is saying.
In the end, that one emotion that forms the bedrock of every relationship is love. Giving positive signals while listening to your spouse not just shows your partner you care for them, but also strengthens your bond with them. Even research shows that positive listening leads to greater marital satisfaction.
So, while your partner pours out their heart, respond with loving gestures and create a body language that shows you are paying attention to them. You can turn towards your partner, nod when needed and ask appropriate questions like, “What happened next?”
In case you are busy and can’t devote a lot of time, a simple sentence like, “I want to know everything you have to say, but I am a bit busy right now…”, would go a long way to show you still care but are restricted by your commitments.
What happens when you don’t listen attentively?
One of the most common complaints that partners share during couple counseling is, “I am feeling taken for granted.” Such scenarios occur when one partner feels that the other is not listening and responding to their needs.
Such complaints are much more frequent among wives since females have a greater tendency to share and express after a busy day, while men prefer to watch the news or indulge in some other relaxing activity.
It’s one of the factors that lead to husbands complaining, ‘my wife nags’ since when they listen half-heartedly while being involved somewhere else, their wife keeps on talking to get their attention. On the other hand, the wives complain,“ my husband doesn’t listen to me” since what they demand is active listening while their husbands carry out passive listening and assume what they are doing is right.
In the long run, when such behavior is repeated, one partner keeps on getting irritated and the other keeps on getting hurt, leading to marital discord and tension.
A similar scenario occurs when one spouse has the habit of shutting up the other rather than listening to what the other has to say. Relationship psychology recognizes this habit of interrupting and shutting up others as stonewalling.
As per a study by Gottman & Levenson, this practice of stonewalling leads to decreased marital satisfaction and an enhanced chance of marital dissolution.
So, for your relationship to sustain and grow, active listening is an indispensable tool.
As Debra Roberts, the author of the book ‘The Relationship Protocol: How to Talk, Diffuse and Build Healthier Relationships’, says
“You need to be fully invested in listening, and, if you can’t be, it will be obvious to your partner”.
Weger Jr, H., Castle Bell, G., Minei, E. M., & Robinson, M. C. (2014). The relative effectiveness of active listening in initial interactions. International Journal of Listening, 28(1), 13-31.
Doell, F (2003). “Partners’ listening styles and relationship satisfaction: listening to understand vs. listening to respond.” Graduate thesis. The University of Toronto Psychology Dept
Pasupathi, M., Carstensen, L. L., Levenson, R. W., & Gottman, J. M. (1999). Responsive listening in long-married couples: A psycholinguistic perspective. Journal of Nonverbal behavior, 23(2), 173-193.
Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1992) Marital processes predictive of later dissolution: Behavior, physiology, and health. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 221- 233.
Debra M. Roberts: The Relationship Protocol: How to Talk, Diffuse and Build Healthier Relationships’
Active Listening is one of the most important skills for a thriving marriage. By listening consciously, couples can be aware of their partner’s thoughts and feelings and revive the romance in their relationship.