By Ashley McIlwain

Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? Mark 8:18

“You hurt me so badly! I am devastated!” says the wife.

“Well, you hurt me too, and you don’t know what I’m up against at work,” replies the husband.

“You don’t care at all about me!” she yells.

“I can’t do anything right! All you do is start on me!” he screams, throwing his arms in the air and walking away.

Most likely you can relate to this conversation. No doubt you have had a similar one with your spouse at some point. Both people walk away hurt, angry, and frustrated. Nothing is resolved, and if anything, the situation feels worse than before.

There’s a simple reason why.

Neither person felt heard, and realistically, neither person was likely listening.

Many arguments and miscommunications between two people, especially husband and wife, are the result of not listening to one another, and thus, not hearing one another. When we aren’t listening, we miss what’s really going on with our spouse, and the result is they are hurt. Whether there is a solution or not, most of us just want to feel heard. We associate feeling heard with feeling cared for.

Yet, many of us aren’t listening. We filter what is being said through our experiences, feelings about ourselves, and assumptions. Like a coffee filter, we sift what is being said through the filters of our life, which often leads to misunderstandings and misconceptions. Before we’ve even gathered what or why our spouse is communicating, we are formulating our rebuttal. Our main concern becomes defending ourselves above all else. The dialogue develops into an argument at an alarming rate, and what could have been a simple conversation becomes a serious conflict.

What happened?

We didn’t listen, and we didn’t hear. We went into defense mode as an act of self-preservation, and suddenly, it’s all about nurturing and caring for ourselves without regard for our spouse’s feelings and need for nurturing. This is our natural tendency – to protect ourselves. What often happens in our journey to self-preservation is we hurt our spouse and our marriage.

Listening is a skill. It’s something that takes time and effort. It requires practice, determination, and concentration to learn how to listen. To truly listen is to truly care, which is why it is so vital to develop this skill. When we hit the pause button on our defense mode and cease to head down the path of taking offense, we facilitate understanding, communication, and ultimately, intimacy with our spouse. It is in conversation that we learn the most about who our spouse is.

Much like a stream brings new life to a lake, our spouse’s insights and thoughts carry with them life. Effective communication starts with our ability to listen. Listen for what is on your spouse’s heart. Listen to what they desperately desire for you to understand. Listen for what is really going on.

In God’s Word, we repeatedly hear how important it is to hone the skill of listening.

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;

–James 1:19a ESV

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice. –Proverbs 12:15 ESV

If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. –Proverbs 18:13 ESV

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion. –Proverbs 18:2 ESV

Clearly wisdom is associated with our ability to listen. As a marriage and family therapist, I can say much of the time I spend with clients is teaching this very skill and concept. Before defending, before assuming, before reacting … listen.

In developing your ability to hear your spouse, you will be building the intimacy and connection between the two of you. Communication is such a huge part of a healthy marriage. Here are a few things to help you cultivate the skill of listening.

  • Active Listening. Listening isn’t merely the absence of you speaking. There is a job involved for you as you close your mouth and open your ears. Active listening involves listening attentively to your spouse without interrupting and then restating what you heard them say. It’s important to acknowledge both the content of what was said as well as the feeling communicated by your spouse.
  • I Statements. It’s helpful if you and your spouse start learning to speak in I-statements. “I feel __________ because _________.” This eliminates the blame game and more effectively communicates what you are feeling and why to one another. This also makes active listening easier because the listener can more easily reflect back what they heard. “What I heard you say is that you are feeling ________ because _________. Is that accurate?” I-statements invite your spouse into the conversation versus pitting the two of you against one another. It also helps you to better understand what you are feeling and why.
    For a list of feelings to refer to, click here.
  • Empathize Don’t Fix. At times we are looking for a solution to whatever we are conversing about, but more times than not, we just want to be heard. It’s easy, especially for men, to go into fix-it mode, which can make matters worse. It seems a little odd to hit the brakes on solving a solvable problem, but that’s exactly what needs to happen. Understanding must precede advice. If you don’t truly understand what your spouse is feeling and why, you’re likely missing out on what the real problem is anyway. Take time to identify what your spouse is feeling and then just empathize. “I’m so sorry that you’re feeling frustrated because work is just so overwhelming right now. I can see why you are stressed out.”
  • Value the Interaction. All too often we miss out on the value of a good conversation. We don’t realize that when we open our mouth, we are opening our heart. Luke 6:45a says, “For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.” When your spouse chooses to share something with you, don’t take it for granted. Don’t grunt, grumble, complain, and resent the conversation, but rather, cherish it because it is a gift to hear the heart of your spouse.
  • Look Beyond Yourself. We tend to give ourselves the most attention and nurturance in a conversation. Something our spouse says stings, and we see that as a green light to lash out in pain. Our wounds feel more intense and important than what our spouse might be experiencing. When we do that though, we just perpetuate a vicious cycle of two people being hurt and hurting one another. If your spouse says something that stings, take some deep breaths and calmly let him/her know that what they said hurt you and why (This is a good time to use those I-statements). It is when we can look beyond ourselves and our own pain to minister to the pain and needs of our spouse that a relationship flourishes. It changes the pattern of interaction from a bitter, angry one to a tender, loving one.

Listening - Image/graphic (c) Foundation Restoration Photo compliments of Dillon Photography

Communication isn’t about hearing ourselves speak. We know our thoughts and point of view already. Communication is about hearing our spouse speak so that we can know their thoughts and point of view. In exchange, we share ours, and in that interaction of gaining understanding from one another a relationship and intimacy is forged. When we love someone, we listen to them. We listen with ears that hear beyond the anger or frustration to their heart and hurt. We set aside our own feelings to care for theirs. We listen so intently that we hear not words but the melodies of their very soul.

The first duty of love is to listen. ~Paul Tillich

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