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Stop Thinking: The Lost Art of Deep Listening

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My marriage was killed by my inability to hear my then-wife when she was expressing her frustration and disappointments in the marriage. Those are hard things to hear. And when I was also struggling with my own stress demons, I simply didn’t want to hear it. I like to look back and write about how she wasn’t hearing me and my love poems. What I realize, is I was just as deaf to her concerns. We came from different planets (kind of like Venus and Mars) and the things we were concerned about, and more importantly, the way we dealt with the things that were bothering us, was vastly different.

It’s easy to look back and point to something as fundamental as money troubles, or as devastating as depression, and say, “That’s what caused our marriage to fail.” And I’ve gotten even more into the Love Languages concept and can point clearly to our fundamentally opposite requirements for what makes us feel loved. Even these things, while accurate, are distractions from what broke down in a much more basic and devastating way.

Even as I was reflecting back what she had complained about (and I did this very reliably in and out of therapy) somewhere deep inside of me, my heart was closed.

I thought I was in the right. I thought my actions and integrity were the fundamental bedrock of my marriage. I thought that I was expressing myself so clearly. But in a marriage, NO ONE IS IN THE RIGHT. That’s a fundamental mistake right there. And the minute I started believing that I had the higher ground, I stopped really paying attention to what my then-wife was asking for. I stopped listening with my heart and started listening my with mind, planning responses and rebuttals without hearing the deeper issue.

In a marriage, you are so enmeshed you are going to do things to piss the other person off. It’s inevitable. And this knowledge is important because you need to understand and learn how you both argue and resolve issues. If you don’t fight at all that might be an indication of one of two things:

  1. You’re sweeping the issues under the rug to keep from upsetting your partner
  2. You’ve become indifferent to your partner’s needs or complaints and you are ignoring the possible changes that are being requested through their complaints or requests

Getting back into the deep listening mode takes work and commitment from both partners. If one partner is unwilling to participate fully there will be an imbalance and eventually a major breakdown.  And at first, when we started going to therapy together, we both appeared optimistic. (Of course, I can’t project what was going on in her head, but she was at least a willing participant.)  However, as the course of our relationship continued in a downward spiral, the communication didn’t get better it got worse.

We would spend an hour in our therapist’s office trying to work through some crisis. I was learning to listen better and reflect back my then-wife’s feelings before beginning my response. And maybe we should’ve seen a more traditional marriage counselor, but I don’t think that’s what we needed. We weren’t struggling with values or commitment issues, we were really struggling, and in the end, failing to hear each other with our hearts.

I was just as deaf as she was. However, I was thinking, at the time, that I was the centered one and we were really just processing her big crisis issues with me. Again, this was my failing. I was wrong. I was more off-balance than she was, thinking that I was clear and present while she was just “in crisis” and needed to chill out a lot more.

I was trying to listen with my head. “She’s mad about this, okay, I’ll change that. Now she’s mad about this, okay, I’ll do better. And wait, she’s mad about that too? Man, this is hard work, but I’ll do that too.”

She didn’t want poems or romantic music. She wanted action. She wanted me to be different.

Even as I was reflecting back what she had complained about (and I did this very reliably in and out of therapy) somewhere deep inside of me, my heart was closed. I was also listening to an inner defense mechanism that was whispering to me as well. “Man, she’s really upset. But that’s obviously her problem. What she keeps freaking out about, every month, is something that she needs to deal with, not me.”

Again, I was dead wrong. But I thought I was a model participant in our conscious listening practice. I THOUGHT I was hearing her. But I was really listening to myself, and my own defense mechanism, telling me how she was the one with the issue, and if I just minded my own business, and did a bit more around the house, that eventually she’d get over it, and we’d be fine again.

We never got fine again. And I know that I wasn’t hearing her either, for that entire last year of our marriage. It seemed to me that she was mad, mad, mad. All the time she was mad. BUT, I was deflecting my part in the equation. Somewhere, fundamentally, I was writing her anger off as “her problem” and something that I wasn’t responsible for.

Let’s pull my assumption apart a bit further.

  1. Anger is something that is an individual’s responsibility. When anger becomes chronic or toxic, it is only the individual who can deal with their own deeper issues and resolve their own dance of anger.
  2. Anger in a marriage is also an indication that something is not working. And once the roles are set (woman as a bitch, man as an irresponsible child) we begin to play out the stereotypes as if we were rehearsing for a play, and not living our marital lives and the deeply threatened consequences of ignoring or sublimating the anger.
  3. I was convinced that her anger was her issue. She was convinced that the ways that I upset her were due to my immaturity. We were both partially right. But the sum of the parts, the fact that we were married and struggling with the issue of anger, meant that it was a WE issue not a YOU issue.
  4. When things began to get more intense we retreated further into our stereotypical responses. And even in therapy, we began to deal with crisis after crisis, which seemed to be about superficial issues. While we were failing to deal with the fundamental issues like closeness, touch, holding, isolation, and sex. (Or lack of sex, to be more accurate.)

Somehow, even with a brilliant therapist, we were playing the higher-lower game. “I’m okay it’s her that’s messed up.” And so, even with help and support, we continued to NOT HEAR each other’s requests at all. Perhaps it was too scary, even for the feeling part of me, to acknowledge that I was hiding my deeper feelings of loss from her. I got sad and she got mad. A perfectly diametric equation that added up to a disaster.

I often wonder if I could’ve reached out in a way that would’ve fundamentally cracked open her guarded heart. Even in those final two months when we were sharing the same house while agreeing that we were getting a divorce, I was trying to express my continued love through songs and poetry. She didn’t want poems or romantic music. She wanted action. She wanted me to be different.

As divorced co-parents, we’re doing better than we did in the final years of our marriage, but of course, there is a lot less emotional listening required.

And I was also counting on some fundamental shift in her as well. I wanted her to get un-mad. I wanted her to return to the physical closeness that we had experienced in the earlier periods of our marriage. But at some level, we were afraid to fight about. And with that fear came the fear of listening deeply. If you feel the pain of your lover, and you open up to their pain, you are going to deal immediately with your pain as well.

We chose avoidance and anger. We chose to stop listening with our hearts, and instead with listened while forming our rebuttals rather than our joining words. We didn’t want to rejoin. We wanted the other person to change and be who we wanted them to be. And perhaps we had become too different to make that transition back to our loving relationship. Even with the stakes as high as divorce and the loss of our family and full-time co-parenting, we couldn’t find the courage to listen and feel. Instead couldn’t stop thinking. We couldn’t just feel and feel into the other person.

I hope at some point in my life to feel as deeply as I did for my wife in the early years and during our transition into parents. Kids change everything. And while we grew into bigger and more compassionate parents, we also dealt with our stress differently. And we experienced love and what made us “feel loved” differently as well. Those differences grew into a big enough gap that we could no longer find the bridge back into our previously loving relationship. Even as we were trying and using all the tools we had to rejoin our marriage, we were stuck in our patterns and dropping back into our familiar defenses.

I don’t know that we could have saved our marriage. With our fundamental differences, we did the best we could, but we stopped listening at some point. And once that disconnect has happened, it takes some real deep work to get back to the heart of listening and hearing your partner, your lover, your friend.

As divorced co-parents, we’re doing better than we did in the final years of our marriage, but of course, there is a lot less emotional listening required. Today our focus is logistics, nurturing, and positive role modeling. And we do pretty well on those things.

Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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image: just listen to her, rick & brenda beerhorst, creative commons usage

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