Much too often in life, I have come across couples or one person in a couple who complained about the significant other in their life not listening to them. These people often hear, but do not listen. And this single point is what brings about the downfall of a good portion of relationships today.
Listening skills are not automatic. We grow up communicating very differently from one another, depending on a wide range of factors, gender being just one of them. But gender is usually the easiest to focus our attention on because the generalizations made about the genders hold a grain of truth in their words for all of us. "He'd rather watch football than talk to me." "She'd rather talk on the phone with her girlfriends than go out with me." "He'd rather go out on a night with the 'guys' than go out to dinner with me." "She'd rather go shopping than go golfing with me." And so on... Even if not always or true, we look at these examples, and things like them, and realize, "Hey, yeah, there's a bit of me in there." That's why comedians so often use gender-related material to make their jokes -- it's easy, it's usually clean, and everyone can relate to some degree to what is being made fun of.
But here's the truth of the matter. In a typical generalization, men and women are brought up and learn completely different ways of communicating with one another. (A good book to read more about these differences and how you can overcome them is, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. by John Gray) It's not that he or she isn't listening, it's that you're often trying to communicate with each other in incompatible ways!
The sexes up to this point get along well, we believe, until they actually settle into a long-term relationship where these differences become more obvious over time. Men and women simply have different values regarding relationships, as well as vastly different ways of dealing with stress and emotional issues. Men tend to hold their emotions in, letting them simmer, and then sometimes explode in pain or anger. They typically find it more difficult to discuss and express their emotions. Women, on the other hand, can more freely and easily express their emotions and what they're feeling at any given moment. Men and women alike will turn to outside activities, like working-out or excercise, as a means of dealing with stress or emotions. This is a healthy response. However, the differences men and women have communicating are often glossed over in the beginning stages of a relationship, even during the first few months. But over time, they become more and more apparent.
It would be demeaning and ultimately pointless of me to repeat the stereotypes so often heard about what each sex values in a relationship, since people's personal preferences vary widely. But I will take a moment to dispel one myth -- monogamy is not a more natural preference for either sex. It has often been said that women were more likely to be monogamous than men, but recent research shows this to be an untrue assumption.
The upshot of this information is simple -- learning to communicate open and freely with your significant other in a relationship is the key to a happy relationship. Some general tips:
- Expressing feelings as your own is important. Do not put them onto the other person in an accusatory manner, as in, "I can't help it I'm angry. You're the one who forgot to go grocery shopping.".
- Listen carefully to what the other person is telling you about how they feel, and learning to respond to and validate their feelings. Many couples see this as a time to argue about whether one's feelings are right or justified. There are no such things. All feelings are right and justified to the person feeling them and one needs to learn to respect that basic truth. For instance:
- "Bob, I'm very hurt right now. What you said was very mean."
- "I'm mean?! What about you!? You're just being a big baby now."
- "Bob, I'm very hurt right now. Your words were very painful for me to hear."
- "I understand that you're hurt... and I'm very angry as well, which is why I may have said what I did. I'm sorry."
- Understand that no one wins or loses an argument. Life is not a game and you don't get a second chance. All you have "won" in an argument is additional resentment on the part of your significant other. Arguments feel better when they are a draw and you both come away from it understanding the other's position and feelings more fully, with your respect intact.
- Place yourself in the other person's shoes and try and see their perspective. This is extremely difficult for some people to do, because they cannot get away from their own feelings, even for a second. But by learning to do so, one can get a better sense of where that person is coming from and what may be motivating them to say or feel certain things.
In the end, you may each want to ask yourself these kinds of questions to help you get started on the path to better communication:
As a woman, has it occurred to you to...
- Ask your partner "just to listen" so that you feel better by getting things off your chest?
- Listen to your partner without suggesting "your solutions" but letting him find his own?
As a man, has it occurred to you to...
- Stop yourself from interrupting other people, especially your partner?
- Let your partner know that you are not withdrawing from her when you go into yourself or out with your friends?
Grohol, J. M. (1996). Why doesn't he/she listen? [Online].