My client Ava (not her real name) wanted to tell her husband about a troubling and upsetting argument she’d had with her sister. She wanted to process the experience; she wanted her husband's understanding and empathy; she wanted to be heard.
But when she tried to share her thoughts and feelings about the situation, her husband seemed irritated about having to listen. When she wanted to talk about the details of her life, things that didn’t involve him directly, it was as if he could barely stand to listen. She described having to wrestle his attention into the room, pull him away from his own thoughts, where he clearly wanted to remain. She was exhausted from having to get and keep his attention.
This kind of experience comes up frequently in my couples therapy practice, for both men and women—a partner who makes you feel like your life is an annoyance or burden to have to focus on, whom you have to corral into paying attention.
Usually, when a couples’ primary issue centers around listening, it suggests that serious work lies ahead. Listening is love in action. That said, when listening is the problem, chances are we’re heading into complex, painful, and often early childhood territory. But sometimes we get lucky and the listening issue has an easy and straightforward cause, and fix.
In certain situations, we can correct a listening issue with a simple shift in behavior, which is timing: how and when we bring our important matters to our partner's attention. It’s strange really, we overlook the importance of timing in communication; we consider timing a far too simplistic and obvious factor to consider. In addition, we are conditioned to believe that attention is something that should always be at-the-ready for and from our loved ones. But this is false or perhaps only true with an attuned and loving parent. In fact, attention is not always available, even in love.
When we want (or need) to share something important, often, we often share without any real awareness of the other person. We don’t consider what they’re doing or thinking about, or how they are in that moment. In a sense, we pounce on our partner, wanting our experience to be known and shared, to have immediate company in what we’re experiencing. (All of which is natural and normal.) While an important part of partnership is indeed being able to share our life, the problem is that we expect our partner to be ready to hear us, and specifically, to receive our experience at precisely the moment when we’re ready to share it.
We forget that our partner is not living the same reality as we are; they may be living in our external reality but they’re not living our internal reality. We assume, without knowing it, that we share an internal experience with our partner, but this is usually not the case. We forget that our partner may not be ready or able to receive our experience, to properly hold space for it. We imagine that because we’re ready, our partner will or should be ready. We then approach without asking if they can or want to give us their full attention in that moment.
At the core, we forget that asking someone to listen, really listen, is indeed a profound ask. When we listen, we literally gift someone with our attention, our most precious asset. When we listen, wholly, we do love. To ask someone to listen therefore is no small request, no matter how easily we discount its importance.
When we share our experience, it’s important that we do so with awareness, and with respect both for ourselves and our partner. And furthermore, that we include discernment and patience, and consider the reality of what’s possible in that moment, not just what we wish were possible. We need to remember that our partner is not us and we are not them; we are living in different internal worlds, no matter how intimate we are.
While it may feel clunky and overly formulaic at first, checking on our partner’s availability before we share, even making a scheduled time to pay full attention to each other, is a way of giving ourselves and our experience the best chance of being received with the interest and attention that we so crave.
When we bring our feelings and vulnerability to the table, it behooves us to prepare that table a bit ahead of time. To have to do so is not contradictory to intimacy. Our partner’s willingness and ability to listen whenever we’re ready to share is not the gauge of healthy partnership. Healthy partnership means being aware of our own needs and giving ourselves the best chance for those needs to be met. And simultaneously, respecting our partner’s needs, which are not the same as ours.
It’s our responsibility to treat our experience, our truth, with the self-care and carefulness it not only deserves, but requires. It’s our job to make sure that the space we’re bringing our truth into is ready and able to meet it. And, ready and able to take good care of it.
We do this both for ourselves and our partner.