If you have been married (or partnered) for a long time, people always want to know, “What is your secret?” The reality is that every partnership is different — feelings of connection, intimacy and romance vary from person to person.
But one pretty universal thing is the need to feel listened to by your partner. According to Megan Harrison, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Couples Candy, “Taking time to listen — really listen — is crucial for keeping our marriages healthy and strong. By making conversation a priority, we communicate respect and put the focus on our partner, where it belongs.”
Listening is easy at the beginning
When you begin a new relationship, listening to each other comes naturally. You have never heard each other’s stories, so you listen intently to what they say. Carissa Coulston, relationship expert at The Eternity Rose, says, “Everything is new and exciting, and you want to find out as much as possible about each other so you can fall in love.”
However, when you have been in a relationship for a long time, it’s hard to maintain the same listening level. Repetition sets into conversations. When your partner starts speaking, you may think, I know this already or I heard this story before, and tune out.
Life, responsibilities can halt communication
“Couples stop listening to one another because they get caught up in their own lives and forget to make time for their spouse,” Harrison says. “When we’re busy, it’s easy to let our conversations with our spouse fall by the wayside.”
Not feeling listened to creates distance
Harrison explains, “Listening is one way we show respect for each other.”
Truly listening means more than just hearing a person’s words. When you feel understood and valued it makes you feel loved. It also increases your sense of security and happiness.
Conversely, it can be damaging when you feel your partner does not listen to you. Not feeling listened to can hurt our self-esteem and chip away at the trust in a relationship. You may extrapolate, “If they don’t think what I say important or valuable, they must not think I am important and they probably don’t value our relationship.”
Tips for better listening
If you think you and your partner need to brush up on your listening skills, here are some pointers.
Undivided attention: If you want to hear your partner, shut out other distractions. That means the television isn’t on in the background, or you aren’t checking your phone or emptying the dishwasher. Choose a good time to talk when you and your partner can be mentally present and focused on one another.
Be an active listener: “You want to make eye contact and nod your head to show you’re following,” Harrison says. “You may want to restate what your partner has told you and ask if you understood correctly.” Adds Coulston, “Ask open-ended questions that show you’re engaging with the conversation and that you’re genuinely interested in what they are saying.”
Give your partner the floor: Even if you don’t verbally interrupt when your partner speaks, you aren’t genuinely listening if you’re focusing on what you will say next. Coulston says, “You need to understand first before trying to be understood. Put your agenda to the side and take in what your partner is saying.”
Accept feedback: If your partner accuses you of never listening, don’t get defensive. Instead, ask for specific examples of times when you haven’t listened. Harrison says, “By doing this, your spouse will feel heard, and you’ll gain a better understanding of how this behavior affected them in the past.”
If you don’t understand, admit it: When you dismiss your partner’s feelings or concerns, this can lead to resentment. But it is OK to admit if you are having a hard time following what they are saying. Harrison says, “Don't pretend like you understand just to avoid feeling embarrassed. Ask them to explain it using different words or ask them to explain it in another way.”
Expect your partner to listen: In a healthy relationship, you need to listen as well as speak. Coulston says, “When it is your turn to speak, be clear and concise when you’re communicating instead of waffling around the subject. Good communication means both partners must be truthful about how they feel, but they must also be prepared to listen and understand each other’s point of view.”
Beyond hearing the words: Listening is ultimately about connecting. “A good listener will look for the meaning behind the sentences — considering the body language and tone of the speaker to determine the true meaning and context of the conversation,” Coulston says.
Breaking old listening habits takes time and patience, but the rewards can be exponential. “When we feel heard, it shows that the person we’re talking to cares about us and our opinions,” Harrison says. “It makes us feel important and valued, which in turn makes us happier and more secure in our relationship.”