One thing that is wonderful about my marriage is the fact that my husband and I really try hard to listen to each other. We learned early on that we both have a lot to process in a day, not to mention emotions that inflame from people we encounter or our circumstances. We have been very lucky to both be talkers, but also listeners and respecters of the other’s need. Many couples I encounter aren’t so fortunate.
It should come as no surprise that a major point of conflict in many marriages comes down to whether each spouse feels heard (and understood) by the other. When a person feels heard … really heard … they feel loved, valued, emotionally/relationally secure, validated, and cared for. But both men and women really struggle in this area of listening, and as a result, we have a lot of lonely, misunderstood husbands and wives.
If you wonder why your spouse won’t open up to you, why they only talk about surfacy or dull topics or look at their phones instead of talking to you, it could be because of bad listening experiences from the past. Wives inadvertently shut down what her husband is trying to share by continuing on in their tasks or discounting an idea they had; husbands try to fix or offer a solution to whatever is bothering her without attempting to understand what she’s saying. Poor listening skills can damage the relationship, because when a person doesn’t feel heard, they just shut up. When couples don’t talk, the marriage suffers. The good news is that by practicing a few good listening skills, the marriage can thrive.
The goal is to become the safest person for your spouse to talk to. If your spouse considers you to be safe, then you will be the one they turn to during difficult situations or shaky emotions. Believe me, you want to be this safe person to them, rather than another woman or man. Get my drift? To be listened to in a way you feel understood is a critical need for both spouses—that is, to be heard while the other listens respectfully as they seek to understand what you’re feeling, thinking, processing.
Proverbs 18:2, 13-15 says,
Fools find no pleasure in understanding
but delight in airing their own opinions. (2)
To answer before listening—
that is folly and shame. (13)
The human spirit can endure in sickness,
but a crushed spirit who can bear? (14)
The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge,
for the ears of the wise seek it out. (15)
And, James 1:19-20 says,
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
These verses share the wise approach to good relationships—listening well. So how do we do that? I like to start with the opposite of where we’re going so we can see the contrast between the desired behavior and the undesired behavior. A poor listener is more self-focused and tends to:
take the focus off the talker and onto themselves.
runs ahead with what is being said in their minds, thinking about the implications for how it will impact them directly.
form judgments and opinions about the person based on the words being said, recoiling instead of taking care to find out where it is coming from – what spurred the words in the first place? What happened?
tune him out or change the topic to something you’d rather talk about.
interrupt with opinions or thoughts of your own about the matter.
continues with what they were doing rather than stopping to give the talker full attention.
discount or dismiss the conversation, what is being said is ridiculous and not worthy my time.
Contrast that with listening well, which is others-focused and puts the other person on center stage. This takes patience, focus, and time so you can understand your spouse’s story, ideas, plans, frustrations, possible solutions, and so on respectfully and mindfully. This isn’t a “fix-it” opportunity, rather it is a chance to go deep with your spouse, to help her vet out her thoughts, feelings, emotions—the things that make up her soul. It’s like a psychologist who listens with rapt attention and asks relevant, guiding questions with no emotional response. The goal is to draw the other person out in order to assist them in processing what they are feeling or to allow them to come up with a solution to their own problem.
This “active-detached” listening is an invaluable relational tool to master. Being able to actively listen in a detached way makes you a safe person to open up to and secures trust. Your spouse needs someone who can hear all about who he is, his insecurities, his fears, his fantasies, his dreams, past scars, and so on, without jumping ahead to future implications or consequences. Both partners want to be understood, validated, cared for, and made to feel secure—that what they think and feel is valuable and matters.
You can practice active-detached listening by:
Staying on their topic, tracking with them mentally.
Asking guiding questions – these are questions that don’t have any specific answers and will parallel the feelings and expressions of the person you are listening to.
Not inserting your own interpretation or opinion of the situation or topic.
Letting him talk while listening for information and clues to get to the heart of the matter.
Reflecting back what she seems to be feeling based on emotional words used.
Validating his feelings and ideas by being kind, gentle, and respectful with the intent of understanding what is being said.
Using verbal cues and body language that lets her know you are listening and hearing what she is saying.
Follow your spouse into their mental point of view, seeking to understand the heart, not just the words. Once you understand the heart, your spouse will feel heard and trust is gained. Once trust is gained, you are considered “safe,” and your spouse feels loved, validated, and secure, which strengthens the marriage more than you can imagine.
For a deeper, more intimate marriage, mastering these listening-well skills will get you there.
Jennifer Edwards, M.A.
P.S. Don't forget check out the PTLB website for marital resources and upcoming classes at www.ptlb.com.
P.S.S. Check out previous Life Is Relationships issues. Click here to visit our blog.
God's Radical Plan for Wives Resources
Wives, you can learn more about your husband's need for you to listen and how to meet that need in God's Radical Plan for Wives by Gil and Dana Stieglitz with Jennifer Edwards.
This book has many tools and exercises to work through that can give wives a new perspective about their spouse and may even help save their marriage. It is perfect for individual or group study, especially when paired with God's Radical Plan for Wives Companion Bible Study. The lessons and exercises in these two books will teach you how to motivate your husband to be the best man possible, setting the stage to gently guide and instruct him to meet your own needs. In a time when women are desperate to save their marriage, these two books have the practical answers you need.