Excerpt from The Power of Two Workbook: Communication Skills for a Strong & Loving Marriage By Dr. Susan Heitler and Dr. Abigail Hirsch and printed with permission.
The plot thickens.
To develop a fully intimate relationship, you need to balance listening to your spouse’s thoughts with listening to your spouse’s feelings. To complete your listening repertoire, you also need to develop a second balancing skill- the skill of listening to yourself, taking seriously your own thoughts and feelings, while listening equally to your spouse’s.
With these two balancing abilities- hearing thoughts as well as feelings and hearing yourself as well as your spouse- your listening skills will give you a solid foundation for a strong marriage.
Listen to Feelings
In the first chapter you learned about the importance of talking about feelings. Listening to feelings is equally vital. Talking about feelings only works if you and your spouse are able to listen to feelings in a helpful way.
Attunement- noticing, hearing, and responding to feelings- signals deepest caring. In fact, talking together about feelings lies at the heart of intimacy. Intimacy is the sense of safe closeness that allows you and your spouse to share fears, desires, and private vulnerable feelings-disappointment, hurt, and shame. Every time you talk in a caring way about feelings and the situations that are evoking them, this intimate talking strengthens the love bond between you.
Attunement to feelings serves practical purposes as well. Listening to feelings enables couples to zero in on what is most important at any given moment. For that reason, the number one rule of listening to feelings in marriage is to listen to feelings first.
Listen to Feelings First
- Whenever you sense that feelings are arising in either yourself or your partner, put listening to the feelings at the top of your agenda.
- Ask about them.
- Depart for the moment from whatever other topic you were discussing.
- Focus instead on the feeling.
- Label the feeling.
- Explore what thoughts and images go with the feeling.
- Then return to the prior topic with a deeper mutual understanding.
Sam had been outside practicing his guitar. He dashed into the living room to tell Dora enthusiastically about the new chord sequence he had just figured out on his guitar. Dora’s eyes suddenly filled with tears.
Sam noticed, and asked gently, “What are the tears about?”
“I love you so much that I felt suddenly terrified,” Dora whispered. “I was thinking how dangerous your work is as a policeman, and that if you got hurt I could lose you.”
When you notice evidence of emotions arising in your spouse- a furrowed brow, a hurt or quivering voice, or a teary eye-ask. Instead of assuming that you know from a facial expression what you know from a facial expression what your spouse is feeling and thinking-which would be a cross-over-ask. Asking about feelings often leads to the sharing of especially important insights.
Practice with your Partner
This exercise increases your sensitivity of each other’s emotions. Sit somewhere comfortable, where you can see each other’s faces. Do the drill several times, alternating roles.
Spouse A: Close your eyes and think about an emotionally charged moment. This can be one of intense joy, sadness, humor, anger, or any other feeling. Allow yourself to replay the details of that moment as if you were watching it on a video. When the video of your memory is finished playing, open your eyes, and share what you envisioned.
Spouse B: Watch your partner as he or she begins to think about a memory. Look carefully for evidence of emotion. Does his or her facial expression change slightly? Does your spouse’s posture change? Do you see subtle evidence of tension in his or her hands? Notice signs of feelings also as your partner, with opened eyes, described the scene.
When your spouse has finished describing the visualization, ask about the signs you saw of emotions. For example, “Your hands clenched into a ball. What were you thinking about then?” or “I noticed you chuckle. What was funny?”
If you and your spouse can notice and immediately talk about feelings, your feelings can serve as traffic signs and signals. They tell you when to stop and when to go, when to proceed with caution, where to turn, and when to yield. They signal you you that a situation needs your attention.
Respond with Empathy
Empathy is the ability to understand the emotions of others. Feeling empathy is not enough, however. Empathy needs to be verbalized.
Verbalizing empathy in a marriage means listening so that you understand your spouse’s feelings, and then giving evidence of what you understand- that is, responding to feelings with the same listening skills you learned for responding to your spouse’s thoughts. To respond with empathy,
- Listen to learn.
- Digest aloud what makes sense to you about the feelings your spouse is verbalizing: “It makes sense to me that you’ve been feeling unappreciated. I hadn’t realized that when I…”
- Ask further questions to explore the associated situation: “What happened today that brought that feeling up now?” Asking questions conveys caring and leads to solving problems.
Being able to respond with empathy gives you amazing powers. Joyful feelings multiply when spouses cherish them together. Your spouse’s sad, anxious, and angry feelings will diminish when you can listen empathically.
Unfortunately, listening with empathy is often difficult. What kinds of listening mistakes do you need to be watchful for? Beware of
- Reacting in a way that sounds critical: “You shouldn’t feel that way.” “Don’t make such a bit deal of it.”
- Reacting defensively: “How could you feel that way when I just…”
- Saying nothing in response, so your spouse feels exposed and left dangling.
- Thinking you have to feel the same way as your spouse, or that your spouse should feel as you do.
- Giving solutions, as if your job is to fix the problem causing the feelings.
Listening with empathy is especially difficult if your spouse’s negative or hurt feelings are reactions to something you have done. Staying empathic instead of becoming defensive takes extra-solid listening skills at these times.
Making matters even more difficult, your spouse may not always talk about feelings with tactful or skillfully phrased feedback.
The feeling may burst out instead, replete with criticism and accusations. That’s when listening becomes difficult, and listening mistakes are especially likely.
Be prepared. Plan to listen to learn, digest aloud, and ask for more information.
About the author
Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is a Denver clinical psychologist who specializes in treatment of anxiety, depression, anger, narcissism, parenting challenges, and marital difficulties.
An author of multiple books, articles, audio cd’s and videos, Dr. Heitler is best known in the therapy community for having brought understandings of conflict resolution from the legal and business mediation world to the professional literature on psychotherapy.
Abigail Hirsch holds a B.A. from Harvard University, an M.A. in Educational Psychology from the University of Colorado, Denver and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She combines a psycho-educational, cognitive-behavioral, skills-based approach with insight-based therapies to help individuals and couples use their past experiences as a means to improve their future.
The Power of Two and The Power of Two Workbook: Communication Skills for a Strong & Loving Marriage, and PowerOfTwoMarriage.com, teach the skills for marriage success.