Most of us want to feel connected, loved and safe in a relationship, but building a relationship that works requires a number of abilities. Building a relationship requires building trust. It requires an attitude of kindness and curiosity towards our partner. It requires looking at our relationship as an adventure, rather than a problem or chore. And it requires being vulnerable – sharing who we are with our partner.
We often want to be listened to by our partners, but can we also listen to them? One thing that makes therapy beneficial is that the therapist is professionally trained not only in psychology, but also in listening. As we are listened to, and validated, we feel affirmed and understood. For example, if my partner says to me, “it really hurt me when you made plans without asking me how I felt about them.” If I respond by arguing and saying, “I thought you were busy,” etc., it could escalate into an argument. What if instead I said, “It really hurt your feelings when I made plans without considering what you might want. Do you want to tell me more?”
In relationships, each person lives in a different world. We will never live in the same world; never have the same past, the exact same experience or way of understanding our lives. We have different wounds and different sensitivities. When we are listened to, we feel less alone. We crave to be listened to without argument or interruption, to simply be heard. One of the things that make a relationship work is when we can listen to our partner, and conversely, know our partner will listen to us.
When we cross the bridge into our partner’s world, we leave our own opinions and self-protection behind. Instead, we bring in curiosity and caring. As we do this, we increase safety in the relationship. The other becomes safe to expose themselves to us. But to do this requires maturity. Listening and understanding without putting in our own two cents is a skill. It is not always easy to listen to the other. With every word they say, we may want to respond, to defend, or to disagree. Crossing the bridge into the world of our partner is problematic if we are reactive. It is hard to listen to another and hold back our disagreements if we are afraid we will be overpowered or lose ourselves by not speaking. It is important to trust that we don’t have to share our own opinions and counter every thing we do not agree with. It is also important to know that our partner will listen to us without argument.
Listening does not mean we agree. It does not mean we give up our own desires and needs. It just means that we listen and validate that we understand. It means we want to understand our partner’s world, even if it is not our world, even if it may cause us pain, even if we want them to change.
What is too hard for you to listen to? Why? Places we cannot listen indicate areas of deep pain. It might be that your partner has a need that makes you feel unimportant or abandoned. Can you listen anyway? What is your partner unable to hear about you? How would you feel if your partner could listen? Is there an imbalance? Does one partner always listen and the other always explain? If so, these roles will need to be switched.
I encourage you to open up the space to listen to each other in your relationship. If you find that either you or your partner is not able to fully listen without countering or arguing, get help. A relationship cannot truly have intimacy if each partner does not feel safe to share his or her feelings. Imago workshops teach people in relationships to build intimacy by listening. Therapy can also teach people to listen to each other.