It seems to me that one of the most fundamental questions many of us face these days is something like: “Is it possible to enter and sustain a relationship without losing my freedom?” If the answer could possibly be, yes, then, we want to know, “How do we do that?” It isn’t terribly complex. Actually, it’s rather simple. Listen. That’s right, just listen. I invite you to eavesdrop for a brief moment on an imagined couples counselling session.
Rob (In response to the Therapist): “Mate, I listen all the time, I’ve been listening to the same arguments between my wife and me for 15 years.”
Therapist (T): “Yeah, that’s frustrating, I would guess.”
Sally: “He doesn’t really listen; he only pretends he’s listening.”
T: He only pretends. How does he do that?
Sally: He only listens to the words.
T: Only to the words.
Sally: Yeah, not to the feeling. Words are just words for him.
Rob: You don’t even listen to the words; you’re constantly telling me what I’m feeling and I’m not feeling anything but totally frustrated because you can’t listen to some simple words in plain English that I’m trying to get across to you.
Ever had a conversation that felt like that? It’s called not listening, and it’s not fun. We’ve got two people, here, talking to each other, but neither is listening, and so, as a consequence, we’ve got two people feeling unheard. When people don’t feel heard they often say the same thing again and again and again hoping their partner will finally get it; they might raise their voice; withdraw and not speak; become insulting, offer unwanted advice, anything to get the other person to stop talking and listen. It doesn’t take long before both individuals have forgotten what it was they originally wanted the other to hear. The argument has taken over and leads them on its merry way to nowhere.
How do couples stop having those kinds of conversations? As I said before, the answer is simple; the doing of it can be extremely difficult. If the couple above can shift their attention from winning an argument, blaming the other or themselves for all that is wrong in the relationship, and instead be interested in and listen to what is going on in the other and themselves, then the conversation make take a different turn. Let’s go back to our eavesdropping stations.
Rob: I’m feeling unheard. I’m trying, but I feel I’m not getting through.
T: What’s it like not to be heard by your partner?
Rob: Lousy, I feel alone.
T: And feeling alone, how would you describe that?
Rob: Scary, I don’t like feeling alone.
T (Looking at Sally): How is it for you to hear Rob feels alone and scared?
Sally: Sad. I don’t want him to feel that way.
Sally silently reaches over and gently places her hand on Rob’s forearm.
Something has shifted. In this brief exchange, the couple is intent on understanding what is happening in and between them that is making their partnership so fraught. Bob does not blame Sally for what he is feeling. He simply states how it is for him when he feels he can’t get through to her. Sally doesn’t feel blamed and attacked, and so she doesn’t become defensive. She is open to what Rob is feeling. She has her own experiences of being alone and scared: she knows that feeling all too well. In that instant of recognising what it feels like for Rob, she tenderly reaches out to him.
T: How was that to feel Sally’s hand on your arm?
Rob (nodding, emotional): Understood, I felt she got what I was trying to tell her….I didn’t know myself before what I was really trying to say.
The second short conversational extract differs not only in its words, but in its whole tone. It is dramatically different. The outcome is different, too, because the initial intention and commitment were different. When each individual is inwardly focused on understanding the other and him or herself, both will begin to feel safe and free to be themselves within the relationship. They become a team, rather than opponents, engaged in the shared task of exploring where their relationship has come unstuck. It is why relationship difficulties, if they can be moved through, result in partnerships that are deeper and more maturely loving than when the same individuals first decided they would have a go at sharing their lives together.