People often ask what I see as the biggest frustration for couples. They tend to think in terms of particular issues – is it money, sex or career issues?
The answer is that couples most often express frustration with not being heard, regardless of the issue being discussed. Women openly complain about this, while men feel equally misunderstood but are less likely to verbalize this except when they are angry. Women see their partner as falling short when communication breaks down, whereas men are susceptible to feeling they are falling short when their wife does not understand.
I find that women often react aggressively when their partner fails to be understanding, whereas men tend to withdraw, feeling helpless and lost in dealing with their partner. Women have had the experience of being understood by their female friends and family, while men have much less experience trying to be understood. After all, young girls begin sharing their experiences with each other during their preteen years, while boys’ attention is on competing with each other (think sports) rather than relating to each other.
The most effective way for you to get your partner to be understanding is to offer understanding. Instead of pressing your point or raising your voice (volume is never the problem), try going into active listening mode. Ask yourself, “What is my partner’s view, feeling and/or desire?
A good challenge is to restate what your partner is saying in your own words before you try to make your point. A typical pattern that leads to arguments is to focus on your comeback before you let your partner know you understand his or her statement.
I often encourage couples to do the following exercise:
One partner makes a statement which he/she feels to be true about the relationship. The other partner then is to make statements such as "Do you mean...?" to indicate whether he or she has understood. The objective is to receive three "yeses" before you reverse roles. Make this as fun and playful as possible. Avoid being aggressive.
Take turns practicing this active listening exercise then apply it when tension arises to increase understanding when it is most important.