Can You Hear Me? The Art of Listening
We’ve all heard it before. Really listen to your partner. Be present.
It’s one of the most popular pieces of relationship advice out there.
Sounds easy enough. But is it?
Learning to listen is great relationship advice for those who really don’t know how to listen to their partner and truly aren’t present (Gottman et al., 2019). What most advice about listening doesn’t adequately address, however, are the times when we just don’t have the time or energy to really listen to our partner at the exact moment when they need a loving ear. Or we find that we can’t listen for as long as our partner wants or needs. I have yet to read a relationship book that addresses these dilemmas, but the fact is, they are incredibly common.
Remember when I told you to stop being a "good" partner and start being yourself? Similar advice applies here. While deeply listening to your partner is indeed a critical part of cultivating emotional intimacy in a long-term relationship, we also have to recognize our limitations. This entails going against widely held assumptions about how often we should be listening and for how long.
In order to cultivate lasting emotional intimacy, it’s important to attentively listen to your partner whenever they need it and for as long as they need.
THE CHALLENGE OF REALLY LISTENING
For my partner and me, listening is a big deal. It’s a huge part of our relationship and it’s a huge part of our work. It’s also been a source of conflict for us over the years.
You see, both my partner and I are psychotherapists, so we listen for a living. Listening makes up a significant portion of our waking hours. So, at the end of our workday, we don’t have much listening bandwidth left for each other. Our batteries of energetic focus are depleted and need time to recharge, to be filled back up before we can tap into them again.
For years, we both operated under the unconscious assumption that to be a good partner meant, first and foremost, to listen to each other. This assumption included listening attentively whenever either of us felt the desire to share our feelings. Either of us might start sharing our thoughts, reactions, or feelings about something that had happened that day, whether an interaction with a friend, a debate on social media, or an uncomfortable moment between us, for example. The other was expected to listen for as long as the sharer felt like talking. Because we both carried this expectation, it regularly became a source of conflict in our relationship. At some point in the past few years, we started noticing, to our dismay, that we weren’t able to really listen to one another much of the time.
Seeing and feeling when my partner wasn’t really listening to me was painful. Maybe he was looking at me, but his eyes were a bit glazed over. Or he would seem to quickly lose interest in what I was saying and get engaged in something else or revert to looking at his computer. I’ll admit that it hurt.
The truth is, however, that I wasn’t able to truly listen to him either. While I tried very hard at times to pay attention, to nod and affirm, to make eye contact, I wasn’t really there. My mind would wander or I’d be thinking or feeling, “I can’t pay attention right now.” And just as I noticed he wasn’t always really listening to me, he noticed I wasn’t listening to him either—and that hurt him, too. It led to both of us feeling a kind of rejection by the other on a regular basis.
It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that you can’t fully provide for your partner what you provide for so many others every day. It seemed unfair. I felt guilty. So, I tried harder. But when we each were really honest with ourselves, we knew we just weren’t able to listen in the way we wished we could and in the ways we felt the other deserved.
My partner and I simply cannot expect each other to be available to deeply listen during or at the end of our workdays. There are exceptions to this, and it’s wonderful when it can happen, but it’s not the norm—and we’ve come to realize that it’s not a reasonable expectation.
MAKING TIME AND SPACE TO LISTEN
So, if I can’t listen intently to my partner every single day or for as long as they want to talk, what do I do? How often is often enough? How long do I need to listen to them?
In order to cultivate lasting emotional intimacy, it’s important for both partners to agree on a consistent, intentional time and space when they will have energy to focus on each other and for both partners to be honest about their limitations around listening.
First, the art of listening includes telling your partner when you just don’t have it in you to listen. You can say, “You deserve to be listened to and I really wish I could, but I just can’t right now. I would love to pick this up over the weekend, when I will have more energy to focus more. Can we do that? Thank you for understanding.” By acknowledging this as soon as you realize it, you stop holding your partner responsible for “forcing you” to listen when it’s not right for you.
This also prevents your partner from getting hurt every time you attempt to listen but are showing signs of distraction. You look tired or disinterested, or you look at your phone or computer, or your mind wanders to something else. You may think these signals aren’t noticeable, but your partner will perceive them consciously or unconsciously, leading to hurt, embarrassment, shame, inner criticism, anger, or frustration. You’re better off coming out with the truth—that you can’t listen right now, but would like to listen at another time.
Second, the art of listening requires that you make it an intentional priority to focus together at an agreed-upon future day or time. I suggest agreeing on a consistent and regular day and time so you know when you’ll get to connect again and don’t have to wonder when it will happen. By making it a regular—at minimum, weekly—priority to dive in deeper together, you’re communicating to your partner that sharing feelings together and building more emotional intimacy is important to you and that your partner is a priority to you, even if your weekday life doesn’t directly reflect that truth.
Third, the art of listening includes making other agreements about how to spend your time and energy so that your time together can be most successful and fulfilling. Consider what you and your partner need to do to: (1) recover from what you have been focusing on, (2) reconnect with yourselves, and (3) look forward to spending time together.
For example, every week, my partner and I have standard days and time periods where we allow ourselves alone time. These are Thursday evenings after dinner through Saturday evenings before dinner. We spend this time mostly apart from one another with brief interactions every so often, saying “Hello” in person or via text from elsewhere in the house. We typically sleep in our own separate spaces on Friday nights to dive deeper into our respective inner lives, and on Fridays and Saturdays, we work, study, or rest on our own. This time apart allows us to be connected with more of our authentic selves once we reunite.
When we come back together on Saturday evening, there is a sense of focusing once again on being in relationship. We do our best to limit any discussions about “our own stuff” from our work lives and our inner lives and try to keep the focus on us—on our life together and our feelings with each other.
Sunday is our special day. It’s the one day each week that we devote exclusively to our relationship. Sunday is sacred to us, and very rarely do we schedule anything on that day that doesn’t directly serve our relationship. We often sleep in and spend much of the day in or close to the bed or couch, where we dream aloud together and have more spacious conversations that lead to vulnerable or difficult sharing, meaningful connections, and creative ideas. We often go for a long walk in which we listen deeply to each other and process anything painful (large or small) that came up between us during the week before.
Fourth—and this might be the hardest part—the art of listening includes being honest about how long you can listen, even when you’ve agreed upon a time to focus. It also includes sensitively discussing your preferences around which ways of sharing are more engaging for you than others. To clarify, let me offer some examples.
When my partner and I are talking together about our feelings in relationship with one another, such as working through a bump in the road from a few days before, we might spend an hour or longer engaged in a deep space of sharing and listening back and forth. This includes processing what happened by sharing our feelings about it, sometimes engaging in conflict, sometimes crying, and eventually and hopefully finding our way to some healing together. We hold all of this in the container of what it means to be emotionally intimate. We don’t usually think about how long it’s taking; we’re just in it. The atmosphere is one of mutual interest, engagement, and connection.
On the other hand, if one of us is supporting the other through a difficulty or is sharing a story that falls outside of our relationship, we are both considerably more mindful of the time. We know that the conversation will support the partner who is talking, but it is less likely to support the partner who is listening, and it may not feed the relationship itself. Therefore, we might set an approximate time limit, such as 45 minutes to one hour. We share the responsibility for keeping to the time commitment so that it’s not just the listener’s job to assert this. If the sharer still has feelings to process, we might set another time to talk, or we might suggest other venues for working it out, such as via our therapists, friends, journaling, or inner work.
Similarly, when we’re in the middle of a workday, we try to not simply launch into “venting” for more than a minute or two about so-and-so who pushed our buttons or explaining in detail the problem we’re having with a work project. We know our partner’s time and energy is limited, so we try to respect that and table the issue for a later, consensual time.
Likewise, we both know a lot about what is most and least engaging for each of us. My partner, for example, has a low tolerance for hearing specific details about this or that person and this or that detail of a story. I have learned to try to share only the most critical details and eliminate the rest. For better or worse, he’s simply not interested, and this will translate into him getting impatient and annoyed if I insist on continuing to speak on that level. He’s extremely interested, however, in my feelings about such-and-such, how it impacts me, my reactions, etc. So, I try to keep the external details brief and stay close to how I feel about what I’m going through. The result is that we’re both more emotionally engaged and we feel closer from the conversation.
I, on the other hand, don’t mind hearing details as much as he does, but I do not tend to feel emotionally engaged in listening to long complaints or struggles without knowing how best I can be of support to him. I appreciate it when he can tell me fairly early on in the conversation what he would like from me in terms of support, so I know how best to listen to him and interact with him in a way we’ll both find satisfying. Is it sympathy, understanding, praise, protection, or defense he needs? Is it expressing my belief in him, helping him think through a decision, or offering him my reflections on where I see his difficulties lie and what might help? I can listen, but more specifically, I prefer to know how I can be of help. When we are able to make these roles more explicit, we both feel closer during and after the conversation.
If you and your partner don’t make your listening preferences and limitations explicit, you are bound to hit some serious potholes. The sharing partner may feel hurt and rejected, and the listening partner may feel resentful, invisible, or even used. These experiences are not conducive to feeling closer.
Finally, it’s important to remember that it’s a privilege to have a partner who will listen to you, engage with you, and support you. Respect their time, energy, and love by being mindful of their preferences and limitations as a listener. If you’re unhappy with the way they listen, process that with them and/or get the help of a therapist.
LISTENING AND SHARING TIPS
Now on to the listening and sharing itself. The art of listening includes several important considerations that partners can make during their listening and sharing time:
Tips for both partners:
Distance yourselves from distractions like your phone, TV, computer, or anything going on around you so you can pay full attention.
Decide if you’ll be talking about your relationship or if one partner will be supporting the other through a current difficulty.
If your conversation will be about one of you supporting the other, consider agreeing upon an approximate time limit. Remember that you are now both responsible for ending on time.
Tips for the sharer:
Respect your partner’s time and energy by keeping uncontrolled venting and long storytelling to a minimum.
If you find that your complaints, venting, or long storytelling is becoming problematic in your relationship, bring this issue to your therapist. You’re likely getting stuck on something and need support to bring more awareness to that spot.
Try to remain focused on sharing your feelings with your partner rather than on conveying details or information. Sharing feelings over content leads to more emotional intimacy.
Reflect on what you might need from your partner and consider expressing that need: Is it that you need help thinking through a problem and finding a solution? Do you need emotional support/sympathy, understanding, or validation for your feelings? Do you need your partner to help defend you from attack or criticism? Do you need them to believe in you or offer you encouragement or praise? The need is rarely just to be listened to and by expressing your need, your partner is more apt to listen in way that will feel satisfying to you.
Tips for the listener:
Keep an open mind and heart. Listen to your partner and the feelings they express without judgment or shaming (of your partner or yourself).
Try to not interrupt when your partner is in a moment of deeply sharing their feelings. Just listen.
Ask questions to elicit more from your partner if you don’t understand, or if they are getting stuck and don’t know what to say. For example: How was that for you? Tell me more. Take your time. I’m here.
Communicate your empathy in words that are genuine for you. For example: I hear you. That sounds so painful. You must be devastated.
Tips for working through accusations and conflicts:
If your partner has accused you of something or is upset with something you said or did, you can spend some time defending yourself (with as much self-awareness as you can muster), but as soon as it’s possible, try seeing even the tiniest bit of truth in what they are upset about. Try accepting even a little bit of responsibility for their accusation.
Try self-reflecting out loud about what perhaps was in your blind spot that contributed to your partner feeling hurt, rejected, jealous, angry, etc. This lends credence to their feelings and can go a long way towards de-escalating the conflict.
The partner who shared the hurt or anger can also self-reflect out loud about a story or incident from the past that wounded them in this fragile place inside. This allows the hurt partner to also accept some responsibility for their feelings.
For more ideas on how to listen well, see Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. For more ideas on how to de-escalate conflicts in your relationship, see Make Love Better: How to Own Your Story, Connect with Your Partner, and Deepen Your Relationship Practice.
When we practice the art of listening, we listen with presence, curiosity, empathy, and a desire to really “get it.” We listen and share with as much non-judgment and non-shaming as we can possibly muster. We share from a mutual desire for the conversation to bring us closer no matter what the content is, no matter whether it’s happy memories, an upsetting conflict, or a tiny bump in the road. We share our feelings with respect for our partner’s time, energy, love, and limitations.
If you stay in that deep place of sharing your vulnerable feelings together for one or more hours at least once a week, you will likely feel much more connected to each other. You will learn how to iron out the wrinkles from the week before and walk closer together on the path of emotional intimacy once again. Till next time, my Love. Same time, same place. I can’t wait.
Dworkin, J. (2019). Make love better: How to own your story, connect with your partner, and deepen your relationship practice. Belly Song Press.
Gottman, J. M., Gottman, J. S., Abrams, D., & Abrams, R. C. (2019). Eight dates: Essential conversations for a lifetime of love. Workman Publishing Co.