Marriage 911: What is your spouse really feeling?

Get emotionally closer to your spouse; improve your listening skills; seek to understand - and then be understood. Go on a listening tour.

Rabbi Simcha and Chaya Feuerman ,

Rabbi Simcha and Chaya Feuerman
Rabbi Simcha and Chaya Feuerman
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It is easy to label a spouse as “crazy” or “having a problem” to explain why he or she is not being rational.  Of course, we use the word “rational” to mean “agreeing with me.”  When people are fighting, each person always thinks he or she is right – if not, there  wouldn't be much to argue about!

No matter what problem you feel is interfering in your relationship, the most effective and healing action you can take is to improve your listening skills. Yes, your listening skills, not your spouse’s. When you listen carefully to another person, the situation automatically calms down, and the other person often becomes more open to your viewpoint. It allows for more facts and clarification to emerge, which can clear up misunderstandings. 

Listening in a particular way (which we shall soon describe) is not just a means to an end, but an end unto itself. Extensive research indicates that fighting and disagreement is just as common among people who report having good marriages as those who have bad marriages.  In fact, in the Gottman study that we referred to earlier, happily married couples interviewed twenty years later essentially fought about the very same things as they did decades earlier. Nothing was solved. 

Couples who fought about money remained dissatisfied  twenty years later. She says, “He is too cheap.” and he says, “She is a shopaholic.”  In regard to family matters, she complains, “He is too strict with the children,” and he gripes, “She is too lenient.”  And so on. 

So why do some couples stay married and report a general level of satisfaction, while others are divorced?

The happily married couples were able to maintain an ongoing positive connection and dialogue about matters of disagreement, listening respectfully and responding with empathy. Even if the problems were not resolved, there was a sense of connection and mutuality. When a spouse felt frustrated or disappointed that things did not go his way, he still felt understood and valued.

The technique in this chapter is not simply ordinary listening. It is a unique type of listening where the other person gets a sense that the listener truly cares and understands.  We use the phrase “Listening Tour” because, if done correctly, it will be a journey and an adventure.  No matter how right you think you are – and indeed, perhaps you are 100% correct in any given situation – the goal of the Listening Tour is to become an expert in your spouse’s point of view.

Relationship Gridlock

People invariably have an internal rationale for their behavior and actions. Right or wrong, each person has an inner narrative that explains and justifies all kinds of behavior.  Let's return to some of the couples we have come to know through this book and discover how each person has a genuine side to his or her story.  Here is what they told us:

Devorah and Michael

Devorah: “I feel so sad and abandoned by Michael. Maybe I shouldn’t attack him, but who can blame me? I have had to bear so much mistreatment.” 

Michael: “I would love to respect her more and treat her better, but she is so irrational. If she acts like a baby half the time, why should she be surprised if I don't take her seriously?”

Yossi and Sarah

Yossi: “I wish I felt the passion I used to feel, but I don’t. The kids and pressure from work is just crushing.  When I see Sarah, I see an old, married lady, not the fresh, attractive woman I used to know.” 

Sarah: “If Yossi would just help me out a little and care more about me, maybe I could try harder in this relationship. Most of the time I am just too tired.  When he offers what he calls helpful advice, it's really just criticism. Instead of helping, he makes me feel small, inadequate and depressed.”

Rivka and Shmuel

Rivka: “Now he wakes up?  Now he wants to spend time together? Where was he when I was desperate and alone? He had all the power and excitement.  He had great friends and a good job. I was stuck at home. I found my way to personal fulfillment without him. I had to become distant from him in order to survive emotionally. I have no room and no more patience for him.”

Shmuel: “I know I made some mistakes.  But I did my best to provide for the family and suffered through plenty of difficult times. Rivka was not always the easiest person to live with.  Now that we finally have time to really work on the relationship, why won't she give me a chance?”

Each of the people described above is in genuine emotional pain. It does not matter who is wrong or right anymore, nor does it matter who initiated the problem. The bottom line is that their patience is bankrupt. Each is too resentful and burned out to make much effort. 

For this gridlock to end, someone will have to make a move. 

If you are the one reading this and your spouse is not, it probably means that you are the stronger and more healthy one. That means you can begin the healing. We will show you how.

Listen to the Inner Narrative 

Healing in relationships begins with listening to the other person’s story. Everyone has an internal story or narrative about who they are and how they are in the relationship. Some people see themselves as white knights rescuing a damsel in distress. Others may feel like a damsel, and others like a victim. It really does not matter what the objective truth is.  If you want to get emotionally closer to your spouse, it is necessary to learn his or her inner dialogue.  What is your spouse really thinking and feeling?

Set some time aside and invite your spouse to tell you about his or her life and how she experiences the relationship.  Let her know you want to hear all of it: the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. What were his hopes and wishes?  How did the relationship fulfill or thwart her desires and dreams?

If you hear ways in which your spouse resents you, or negative things that you have done, just listen. Do not become defensive or feel an urge to explain or justify your behavior. Do not even bother to apologize. All of those reactions are distractions. The goal is to truly understand your spouse’s experience from his or her point of view. 

How do you keep calm when you hear criticisms or facts you disagree with? Keep telling yourself, “There is no right or wrong – there is only perspective.” 

Imagine you were given an assignment for a debating team.  Even if you do not personally agree with the position, you are required to research and discover arguments and justifications for this particular position. Think the same way in regard to your spouse. Try to discover explanations and rationales to account for your spouse's point of view, even if you do not agree.

This type of connection promotes healing and intimacy even when you disagree about facts.  It helps heal arguments not only because misunderstandings are reduced, but also because everyone feels calmer when they feel understood.

It is not enough to just go through the motions of listening – that is, gritting your teeth and holding back your rage while letting the other person talk. You need to momentarily let go of your own concerns and your own defenses so you can really listen and understand the other person’s perspective.  It does not matter if the person is wrong or right: the important part is to truly see it through the other person's eyes.  This is known as Empathic Listening.

University of Maine researcher Dr. Marisue Pickering identifies four characteristics of empathetic listeners:

  • A desire to be other-directed, rather than to project one's own feelings and ideas onto the other. This means to forget about your own needs and concerns at the time that you are trying to listen.

  • A desire to be non-defensive, instead of protecting the self. When the self is being protected it is difficult to focus on another person. Do not focus on whether your feelings are being hurt; instead, focus on really listening.

  • A desire to imagine the roles, perspectives, or experiences of the other, rather than assuming they are the same as one's own. See the other person as a unique individual. Do  not assume that he or she is just another version of you.  Everyone experiences the world differently, based on upbringing and various developmental experiences. What is hurtful for one person may be trivial to the other, and vice versa.  It is important to accept, respect and work to understand the subjective nature of each person’s narrative.

  • A desire to listen as a receiver, not as a critic, and to understand the other person, rather than achieve either agreement from or change in that person. When you are listening you suspend judgment. Your goal is not to prove who is right or wrong, or to win. The goal is to understand the other person completely.

These attitudes help place the individual in the right frame of mind to achieve Empathic Listening. Dr. Pickering also identifies the following skills as helpful:

  • Attending, acknowledging: providing verbal or non-verbal awareness of the other such as eye contact and other affirmations.

  • Restating, paraphrasing: relating what the other person said in your own words and checking with him or her if you are correct. 

  • Checking perceptions: investigate and clarify if your assumptions, interpretations and perceptions are valid and accurate. Many arguments happen when people misinterpret. The first thing you should always do when you are upset with another person is calmly, non-judgmentally repeat what you thought or perceived that was problematic, and ask if you are correct.  For example, “I saw you laughing when I told that story. Am I correct in my perception that you think I am foolish?”  Be advised, your tone of voice and inflection make all the difference. Your question must be genuine and not laced with sarcasm or anger.

  • Being quiet. This doesn’t simply mean being quiet when the person is talking, but to actually take some moments to silently reflect before responding, giving everyone time to think and absorb what was said.

Learning from Everyone

What can be gained by listening to another person, especially if the other person is “wrong”?  (After all, he must be wrong since he does not agree with me!)  One of the great Jewish sages of the nineteenth century, Rabbi Israel Lipshitz of Danzig, known as the Tiferes Yisrael, has some thoughts about what we can learn from the “wrongest” of people – our enemies:

But most of all, the intelligent person should pay careful heed to the words of his enemy when he denigrates him and raises his voice. Then he should listen carefully with a tranquil spirit to each insult, great or small. (Tiferes Yisrael, Pirkei Avos 4:1)

Why are our enemies, or people who are angry with us, such trustworthy informants about ourselves? He writes:

In this respect our enemies are better to us than our admirers. For the love of our admirers covers up all our flaws… However, enemies are our trustworthy teachers; they do not extend us an olive branch.  Rather, they clearly articulate all of our faults.

The reader may object, “But that’s not fair! That person hates me, why should I listen to him?” The Tiferes Yisrael responds:

True, he will attribute some things to you which are not really so…though he magnifies every minor point of your shortcomings under a microscope, be happy about this, so you may become aware of the faults which others already know…

Of course, every relationship requires balance. No one should be a doormat, forced to tolerate insults and hurtful rants. You have a right to object.  But at the moment that the other person is speaking, don’t interrupt! Listen to the attack even if it is not being said in a graceful way. We tend to view ourselves more charitably than is good for us, and others far less charitably. Perhaps the other person is being unfair and rude – but it is a really good idea to take the time to listen carefully first. 

When Is it My Turn?

Once you have truly and carefully listened, you are almost ready to speak your mind. But not yet.  Listening is a process that also involves checking to see if what you heard the other person say is actually what he or she meant. Therefore, summarize and repeat back the basic points of the complaint and ask if you have it correct. Then, and only then, you should request to offer your point of view, including your concern about the way you were spoken to. This will shorten the length of an argument and increase the chance that it will be resolved appropriately.

In ancient times, the great Rabbinical academies of Hillel and Shammai were constantly in dispute about Jewish law. The sages were unsure of which traditions to follow, as each school was comprised of the generation's finest minds as well as strong adherents.  According to tradition, the impasse was alleviated via a heavenly voice which decreed that the law should be in accordance with the Academy of Hillel.

The Gemara (Eiruvin 13b) offers a surprising reason for this outcome.

Why was it decreed that the law should be in accordance with the Academy of Hillel? Because they were gentle and gracious, and taught the opinion of Shammai first.

Although law is principally a matter of facts and intellect, the Talmud astutely divined that truth can only be arrived at via ethical, courteous and open-minded discourse. This is why they felt the rulings ought to be in accordance with the Academy of Hillel. 

If you follow the same process, making sure you listen carefully to the other person and understand his or her point of view before you begin to argue your own points, you will become smarter and the other person will listen better.

The Real Goal is to Understand

Frustrating and escalating fights happen when couples approach their argument with a goal of winning. Naturally, there can only be one winner, and since both want to win and both feel they are correct, it usually does not end well.  However, if a couple engages in an argument with a different goal, a much more positive outcome will ensue. 

The goal of an argument should be to understand the other person’s position as fully as possible, and then to make yourself understood.  It must be in that order: to understand and then be understood.  Understanding another person does not mean agreeing or endorsing that opinion, it just means being able to put yourself in that person’s heart and mind, so you can see how and why that person holds a particular belief or opinion.  

When we suggest the approach of Empathic Listening to couples, from time to time a spouse can get stuck on this point. We hear complaints such as, “I don't want to hear his point of view, because he will think I agree with him – and I absolutely do not.” Or, “If I show that I understand her point of view I am afraid it will encourage her to think that way. I don’t want that to happen because she is wrong.”

While these concerns seem reasonable, they represent a naive thought process about what really works in a relationship. When you listen with empathy, the other person feels calmer, happier and more understood.  Usually, this greatly increases receptiveness to alternate viewpoints and possibly different actions.  Why is this so?  Because protecting a person's sense of independence is vital.  No one likes to be forced into doing or believing anything.  The weaker a person's identity is, the more difficult it is for he or she to be pressured into doing something. The act of pressuring is perceived as an attempt to blot out his or her individuality. 

This is why adolescents are notoriously contrary. Their identities are still quite fragile and they have a difficult time following rules if they do not agree with them.  As we get older we develop a greater ability to feel independent, even when we are coerced, because our self-confidence and identity is stronger. Nevertheless, most people still find it challenging to listen or be agreeable when they do not feel listened to, or if they feel unimportant.  Taking the time to listen carefully changes this equation dramatically.

In ancient times, the person of lowest status was the slave. Despite this, the Rambam Hilchos Avadim (9:8) instructs us to listen compassionately to the complaints of a gentile servant, providing us with a lesson in how to treat all people:

However, even though the letter of the law is such [that it permits one to work his servants intensively], it is the way of the scrupulous in the commandments to be a merciful person and to abstain from excessive screaming or anger. Rather, the master should speak to the servant in a gentle tone and listen to his complaints. The children of Avraham, the Jewish people upon whom G-d bestowed the goodness of the Torah, are merciful to all.

To be perfectly frank, most people would find it challenging to treat their own family members consistently in the standard that the Rambam sets for treating a slave.

When you show you care about the other person's point of view and respect it, even if you do not agree, it decreases his or her anxiety by several notches.  And since this person's point of view was treated with respect, giving in will feel much less threatening to his identity. Although it is not a guarantee, Empathic Listening will be more likely to encourage the person to change his mind, instead of fighting.

The Myth of Compromise

Some people feel that the ability to compromise is a sure way to enhance a relationship.  After all, if you give in a little here and there, everything should be fine. But compromise can often involve both people losing too much to make it a happy solution.  Consider this example:

Your son does not want to wear dress shoes to a formal event because they are uncomfortable, and instead wants to wear sneakers. But you feel at his age he should wear more respectful attire. 

Would anyone suggest that you compromise by having him wear a sneaker on one foot and a dress shoe on the other?  Of course not. Listening carefully to understand the meaning and personal relevance of the matter is necessary before any kind of compromise can be suggested. 

In this situation, you would need to listen carefully to find out how uncomfortable the shoes are for your child and to what degree he feels dressing respectfully is important.  Ideally, he should also listen carefully to understand why the matter has meaning to you. At that point, it may be possible to suggest a compromise. 

The best approach is not a compromise based on each party giving in.  Instead, find a way that satisfies each concern to the maximum.  For example, could a pair of sneakers be found that convey a degree of dressiness, or are there dress shoes that fit more comfortably on his feet?  Or, since the main issue is respect and decorum, perhaps the child would agree to honor the event in some other way that could satisfy your concern. 

When you listen fully, compromise is no longer an arbitrary sacrifice composed of points and bargaining chips. It is an effort to truly satisfy as many of the underlying concerns as possible. This can be achieved more easily when each party thoroughly cares and understands the other point of view.

The Myth of Apology

Apologies often do not work. The person who was offended may have very minimal confidence in the apology. After all, how does he know the other person truly regrets it, will not offend again – and most important, understand how he was hurt? Most people are not as needy of an apology as they are to feel understood and respected.  In fact, it is likely that the only way apologies help – the only time they do work – is if by showing regret, the aggrieved party feels you respect and understand the pain you caused. 

This is a point worth repeating. Apologies are less important than giving the other party a sense that you understand how he or she was hurt. It is a part of human nature to desire connection with others. We feel better when we have a witness to our suffering.

The best way to smooth over hurt feelings is to first ask how you hurt the person and show concern for them.  Don’t offer excuses or defenses.  Instead, understand how much pain you caused by looking at it subjectively – meaning, how it felt for the other person. Do this without making any excuses or justifications as to why you did it. 

The next step after listening is to repeat what you heard, again without making any excuses.  Just show that you respect and care about how much pain you caused.  At that point, you could use the word “sorry” or “apology,” and it will be far more effective.

Let us review the important listening strategies and techniques discussed in this chapter:

1.  No matter how upset you are and no matter how wrong you think the other person is, make sure to listen first.

2.  Good listening means having an open mind and truly trying to understand the other person’s point of view. This does not mean to understand why he or she is right or wrong, but to truly see his/her inner experience.

3.  Review and repeat back to the other person what you have heard and verify that you understand the other person correctly. A calm, caring attitude is necessary for this to be effective. It means you must find a way to let go of your anger or hurt for the moment.

4.  Ask if the other person is willing to hear your point of view and ideas. If so, share your feelings, concerns and requests using the six steps we discussed in an earlier chapter: (a) Respect Timing and Setting; (b) Connect to Your Spouse; (c) Describe Offensive Behavior Neutrally; (d) Share Your Feelings; (e) Make a Direct Positive Request; and (f) Make your Statement Brief.

Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW-R and Chaya Feuerman, LCSW-R maintiain a psychotherapy practice in Queens and Brooklyn, NY.Simcha specializes in high conflict couples and serves as president of Nefesh International and Director of Operations for OHEL.Chaya specializes in trauma and addiction and is  EMDRIA certified in EMDR and IFS level II trained.They can be reached at simchafeuerman@gmail.com or cyfeuerman@gmail.com

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