Understanding your partner requires knowing how be a good listener. To really listen.
Couples are advised to hear each other’s complaints without feeling attacked, and as great as this sounds, it’s often unrealistic.
When something you said (or didn’t say) hurts your partner’s feelings, there’s a strong impulse to interrupt with, “That wasn’t my intention. You’re misunderstanding me,” even before your partner is done talking.
Unfortunately, when the listener reacts to what the speaker is saying before the speaker gets the chance to fully explain themselves, both partners are left feeling misunderstood — and this can lead to broken trust and broken relationships.
For most of us, listening without getting defensive is a hard communication skill to master. This is especially true when our partner is talking about a trigger of ours.
A trigger is an issue that is sensitive to our heart — typically something from our childhood or a previous relationship.
While the phrase “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” may have some truth, it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that trauma and regrettable incidents can leave us with scars.
This could be a result of a number of things. Maybe you’ve been repeatedly hurt or you experienced injustice in your relationships. These moments from our past can escalate interactions in the present.
Below are some tools that will teach you how to self-soothe and be a good listener with more effective communication skills in order to fix your own broken relationship:
1. Write down what your partner says and any defensiveness you’re feeling.
Dr. Gottman suggests using a notepad to write down everything your partner says, which is especially helpful when you’re feeling defensive. This also helps you remember what was said when you reflect back what you hear or it’s your turn to speak.
Remind yourself that you’re listening to your partner because you care about their pain. Lastly, it’s helpful to say to yourself, “I’ll get my turn to talk and express my feelings about this.”
2. Be mindful of love and respect.
During tough conversations, it’s helpful to focus on your affection and respect for your partner. Recall fond memories and remember the ways your partner has demonstrated their love. How they support you and make you laugh. Think about how the joy you bring each other is more important than this conflict and working through this together will lead to more of those.
I’ve found it helpful to write a quote or a happy memory in the top right corner of my notepad reminding me that I love my partner and that this conflict has the potential to bring us closer.
In Dr. Gottman’s book What Makes Love Last?: How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal, he suggests saying to yourself, “In this relationship, we do not ignore one another’s pain. I have to understand this hurt.”
When you self-soothe, you learn to separate your relationship from the anger and hurt you’re feeling over this particular issue.
3. Slow down and breathe.
Slowing down and taking deep breaths is a great way to self-soothe. Focus on relaxing your body. Sometimes doodling helps, but when you do this, don’t get lost in the activity or stop listening.
And if your partner notices you self-soothing, just say, “I am trying to stay present as I listen, and stuff is coming up for me so I am trying to calm myself so I can truly hear you.”
Remember to postpone your agenda and focus on understanding your partner.
4. Hold on to yourself.
Dr. Schnarch advises partners to create a strong relationship with themselves as individuals by learning how to listen, self-soothe and embrace their own emotions.
Oftentimes when you feel flooded, it is not because you are reacting to your partner’s words or behavior. It’s because you are interpreting what they are saying and assigning personal meaning to their statements.
Maybe their anger makes you feel like they’re going to leave you. Or maybe it makes you feel like you’re not being a good enough partner.
Look inward and see what you are telling yourself about what this conflict means and how it may impact you. Holding onto yourself also means considering that your partner’s complaint may have truth to it.
Sometimes we hold onto a distorted self-portrait. I know I have.
5. Don’t take your partner’s complaint personally.
I know this sounds impossible, especially if the complaint is about something you did or didn’t do.
If you feel yourself getting defensive, seek to understand why. Ask yourself, “Why am I getting defensive? What am I trying to protect?”
Your partner’s complaint is about their needs, not yours, so soothe your defensiveness so you can be there for them.
6. Ask for a reframe.
If your partner is saying something that is triggering, ask them to say it in a different way.
“I’m feeling defensive by what you’re saying. Can you please reword your complaint so I can understand your need and explore ways we can meet it?”
7. Push the pause button.
If you notice you’re having trouble focusing as the listener, ask your partner to take a break from the conversation.
This is a proactive way to self-soothe and prevents your emotional brain from flipping its lid. You can say, “I’m trying to listen but I’m starting to take things personally. Can we take a break and restart this in 20 minutes? Your feelings are important to me and I want to make sure I understand you.”
During this time, focus on the positives of your relationship and do something that is productive. I prefer to go for a walk.
Once you’ve learned to self-soothe, it becomes a lot easier to ask your partner to help you calm down. If you find yourself struggling, tell your partner what’s on your mind. For example, “Hun, I’m feeling flooded. Can you tell me how much you love me? I need it right now,” vs. “You’re the one with the problems. Fix yourself!”
The latter reaction comes from a place of fear and often creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. The former gives your relationship a fighting chance and the possibility to create a more& secure bond.
Conflict is not only a catalyst for understanding, it’s also a vehicle for personal growth.
I like to think of relationship conflict like an oyster. Oysters don’t intend to make beautiful pearls. Instead, pearls are a byproduct of the oyster reducing irritation created by grains of sand.
In the same way, conflict can inadvertently create connection and closeness.
After listening to Suzanne, Braden took a deep breath.
“I hear you saying that my reaction to your request for help with the kids made you feel like family doesn’t matter to me,” he told her. “I can see why you’d be so upset with me.”
A tear rolled down Suzanne’s cheek. This was a major breakthrough for their marriage.
Long-lasting love requires courage, the courage to be vulnerable and to listen non-defensively, even in the heat of conflict — especially when we are hurt and angry.