Do I really hear my partner

Do we really hear anyone? Have we ever really learnt how to listen & hear somebody? And I mean really hear somebody. The answer on most occasions is no. 

Do I really hear my partner? Have you ever asked yourself this question? The majority of couples clients who come to therapy talk about not feeling heard by their  partner. It’s a really common complaint in relationships. And it’s a really common complaint from individual clients within their families & with friends.  This article explores some of what I have learnt myself, through clients & through training.

One reason we don’t tend to really hear or we don’t tend to feel heard is because we have too much going ‘up there’ & especially in relationship conflict, most partners will be to focused on loading their guns to fire back! They will be thinking (& maybe saying)…

’you never said that’, 

‘you’re not the person I thought you were’

‘that’s not true’, ‘I can’t believe you just said that’

‘f**k you!’ 

& so on! 

And this can feel vastly different to when they first met & their partner used to really listen & they were interested & paying attention. And doesn’t that bit just feel lovely hey! 

I tend to think about this in the way that a lot of people just haven’t had listening & hearing modelled to them, they haven’t learnt the skills of just listening to somebody, without interpretation or trying to over-come etc & haven’t experienced somebody doing it for them. And you can put me in that group pre-therapy too. My family have a tendency to just talk at each other. 

We will also see this in the work place, in the pub. Well I see it anyway & imagine other people do too, if they really pay attention & really listen (look). In these conversations there may not be many questions & one person is often ready to respond before the other person has finished talking. This is even more so if there is conflict. We are often defending ourselves or may take what the other person says personally. 

All of this is really ordinary & super common.

And it also creates a great deal of distress & conflict in relationships.  In relationships the not feeling heard bit can also lead to talking feeling mis-understood, controlled, minimised. It is core to the conflict & how couples get stuck. And when we feel hurt by our partner it can escalate from there.

And yet even though it’s so common, it’s still mostly mis-understood; in that this defensive way of speaking when there is conflict is human nature, there’s a lot of out of awareness stuff going on, we are just trying to defend ourselves the best way we know how & probably how we learnt in childhood. Most ‘acting out’ (shouting, withdrawing etc) is a protest against the loss of connection. And with this way of not-communicating, it can be unlearnt & can be done differently. 

When our partner is trying to tell us about their thoughts or feelings, the over-coming, the telling them ‘it’s not like that’ or saying to them ‘I don’t want you to feel that way, please don’t feel that way’ are all ways of essentially minimising our partners feelings (& or thoughts) & is a contributing factor to not hearing & not feeling heard. In particular when we say…

‘please don’t feel like that’

… we are essentially trying to get rid of our own discomfort around their feelings. And in many cases we are carrying on what our partner experienced in childhood, being told in one way or another that they shouldn’t be feeling what they are feeling or that their feelings are not valid. As such it’s a completely invalidating experience. 

I’ve been using the ‘Imago’ dialogue process with couples in the therapy room for sometime now. I first heard about Imago in 2016 & went on to read the Getting The Love You Want book & attended a workshop. It was the first time I had been introduced to what seems a really simple concept & approach. Putting it simply in Imago dialogue we learn to mirror, validate & empathise. Sounds simple right? And actually for some couples it can be. For other couples it isn’t or it takes time to get used to it. Truly hearing somebody can take practice, especially if you have been in conflict with that person for several years. The essence of this being truly putting your stuff aside to actually listen & hear your partner. 

And it can be an incredibly powerful experience. 

Some partners fear that if they actually listen to my partner then they will have to give up what’s important to them, forfeit & or back down. On the contrary, both partners still have space to share. And really importantly both partners have a ‘safe’ space to complain! Yes, you can still complain with Imago! However Imago clients learn to do this in a way that is safe, respectful & couples learn to repair ruptures, as opposed to say; ‘let’s just draw a line’. And this is another blog in itself, the stuff that gets brushed under the carpet. 

This lovely process doesn’t just have to be for using with partners, it’s really useful for a lot of clients with their children or can be taken in to the workplace (see a later blog about this or request further information). Give it a try with somebody you know… Let the other person speak, mirror what they say & check in if you have got them right & ask them is there more. Then see if you can capture & summarise & maybe offer one word for how you imagine they may feel. And see what happens!