“You don’t understand me.”
“Why aren’t you listening?”
“You ask me to help, and then you get mad at me when I try.”
I wonder if you hear words like these when you’re having a conversation with your spouse, partner, or friend. Do you ever feel like you’re not getting anywhere when you talk to them? You try to be supportive, but somehow it always ends in an argument or the cold shoulder. Maybe you try to give some advice, or point out the clear source of the problem, but that only digs you further into relational turmoil.
Or maybe you’re on the other side, where all you want is to be heard and understood but you can’t seem to get your point across. You leave conversations feeling like whatever you talked about is your fault, and if you were smart, you would’ve come up with a response by now. You may even walk away more stressed than you felt before you talked about it, and wonder why you even brought it up.
Check out the video below to see an example of this common relational pattern. Can you relate?
Which side do you tend to see yourself on in this conversation? Are you the husband, who tries to point out the obvious solution of the nail in her head? Or are you more like the wife, where you just want to have someone listen to you and hear the pain you’re in? Or maybe you’re both, depending on the conversation?
In Gottman’s Stress-Reducing Conversation activity in couples therapy, he acknowledges a husband’s tendency to try to fix things, as well as a wife’s tendency to over-identify with her husband’s emotions. While this gender stereotype may be true in some areas, the opposite can also happen in relationships, where the wife can try to fix things and the husband can take on the wife’s emotions. Regardless of which role you’re playing at any given time, this pattern can lead to conflict when each member of the pair isn’t willing to see from the other’s perspective.
If you find yourself more often in the husband’s chair, it can be difficult to hold back your desire to provide a solution in order to prevent your partner or friend from feeling pain. While your desire to support or be helpful is good, jumping to advice-giving can communicate that you don’t care about your partner’s feelings or viewpoint. What you partner or friend may need is just someone to sit with them, be a witness to what they’re feeling, and hear their story without trying to provide an answer.
If you’re more likely to see from the wife’s point-of-view, it can be easy to become defensive or angry when you hear unsolicited advice or counsel. In fact, you may feel yourself start to shut down and become angry. Notice these tendencies in yourself, and if you want to continue to engage in this conversation, you can take a risk and express your needs clearly, saying something like, “I hear that you’re trying to help make this situation better, and I appreciate that, but what I need right now is space to vent and talk about it without hearing how to make it better.”
My challenge for you this week is to take some time to sit with your partner or a friend and take turns sharing and listen to what is stressing you out. Do they have major pressure at work? Is parenting feeling exhausting and hopeless? Do they have a strained relationship with a close friend or family member?
Rather than pointing out ways they could fix the problem, or potential solutions, sit together and listen to what they have to say about the pain they are experiencing. After they feel heard and understood, then you can ask if they want to receive feedback or support, and they will likely be more responsive. If you’re sharing and you sense some advice coming your way, identify that feeling to your partner and express your need to be heard and understood.
If you and your spouse are struggling to connect with one another, and every conversation seems to end in an argument, I’d love to help you use tools to start communicating more effectively. Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor based therapy office where I use Gottman Method Couples Therapy to foster healthy, thriving marriages. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to share your story and see how I can help.