How To Get Your Spouse to Listen

You are right.  I totally believe you.  Your spouse is a terrible listener at times.  They likely do everything else, check their email, tend to the kids’ demands, answer a phone call, look at you blankly and then turn back to what they were doing, pop off reactively with “really, you are bringing this up right now?” or give you the death glare that makes you promise yourself you “aren’t bringing up ANYTHING anymore, let’s see how they like that!” Then you proceed to give the silent treatment for the next 2 hours or days.

Start by asking your spouse this question:

Do you have the ability to listen right now?

I know when my husband is preoccupied and stressed out.  I know when he can’t take in any more information because of all that is swirling around in his head.  This doesn’t mean I can’t approach him during these times because life with kids can’t always wait for the perfect moment of peace and bliss (does that even exist?) to talk through difficult topics. The tactic here is to acknowledge the difficulty of the moment and ask if they can put those things aside for a minute to talk about this important thing.

This tactic is not foolproof.  I tried this recently after a business trip my husband took, where he had entertained groups of people and small-talked until he couldn’t talk anymore.  I waited for his return to talk about an important thing in my life.  He looked a bit weary-eyed and depleted, but I pressed on.  

I asked: “Do you have the ability to listen?” He said “50/50 chance.” I took the risk. I went forward and explained my situation in detail. He nodded and gave his verbal affirmations that he was listening: “Ummhmmm. Ok. I see.”

Then I asked for feedback. I wanted to know what he thought, what input he had for my situation.

Me:  “So, what do you think I should do?”

Him: “I don’t know.”

Me: ”I just told you all of that and you got nothing? Nothing?”

Him: “I told you it was 50/50.”  

He was right, I took the risk and it backfired.  Too bad. Better luck next time.  Although, the nice thing is that I wasn’t angry, I was sufficiently warned.  And, he felt a bit bad too, so when I brought it up the next day, he was ready to redeem himself and give me his full attention.

You can’t pop off on your spouse in the middle of a hectic car ride, when you are late for your kid’s soccer game, when he is getting blasted with text after text from his needy boss and then get pissed that he doesn’t listen. Similarly, you can’t spout off to your spouse about your concerns or complaints with accusations, demands, or character assassinations and then get upset because they shut you down or shut you out. If you aren’t coming to your spouse at an effective time in an effective way, you can’t get mad when they don’t listen.  Well, actually you can; and you probably do.

Getting mad about your partner’s undesired reaction to your ineffective approach is the fastest path to nowhere.

What to do?

Let’s discuss ideas for an effective approach.  

  •  “I have something important I want to talk about, I need about 10 minutes of your time.  If not now, when would be good for me to bring it back up again today or tomorrow?”
  •  “I know you are super busy, but I have this thing that I can’t wait to talk about.  Can we put everything aside for just 4 minutes to figure this thing out together?”

You may be thinking: “These all sound like lovely approaches, assuming I’m in my best, calm collective self, and I’m not simultaneously juggling five million other things and have the amazing ability amidst all of this chaos to pull together these types of lovely thoughts.”

A few things about that.  That’s okay.  The communication in these types of moments is strained, stressed out and reactive.  But knowing that YOUR delivery and your spouse’s response were all part of a jointly terrible moment can help.  Just the insight that they responded terribly to your terrible delivery can lead to a lot of patience, understanding and forgiveness.  Then, neither of you are stewing in a way that makes it hard to reconnect later and then have the lovely types of conversations described above.  They are just terrible moments, that are fleeting, and will be replaced by lovely ones later.  

Let’s use the scenario that you are juggling five million things.  The moment when you are feeding your children breakfast, signing their permission slips, finding two pairs of shoes that actually match, trying to remember if today is picture day for which kid and which kid is supposed to be bringing supplies that you signed up for and which child is having “pizza day” at school and which child you still need to pack a lunch for….I’m already exhausted thinking about moments like this.  Let’s say you are completely overwhelmed and accessing that lovely part of you is seriously out of the question.  But, you still need a moment of your spouse’s ear.

Here are some tactics to use:

  • “I’m having one of those moments, those mornings, when I need your patience with me.”
  • “I know this is not ideal timing, but I need you right now.”
  • “I apologize ahead of time for bringing this up now, but it can’t wait.”
  • “I know this is a tall order in this moment of complete chaos, but will you join me in trying anyways?”
  • “I”m overwhelmed and drowning in this moment.  If you have the ability to help, it would mean the world.”

My final thought on this.  If any of your attempts to get your spouse to listen to you includes a criticism, critique, character attack, or any inference that they are doing things in a less than desirable way, do not be surprise when they don’t listen.  Do not be surprised when they shut you down or shut down themselves.  This will likely occur until you are willing to take a look at your approach and your ability to tell your spouse something like this:

“I’m overwhelmed and drowning and desperately need your help…not because you are not trying and not because I don’t see and appreciate all of your efforts in this family…but just because what we are doing is so hard and we have so many balls in the air.  Superman himself couldn’t be all that our family needs in this moment.  Can I talk to you about what I feel and what I think could help me today?”

If you do not have some sort of effective way to approach your spouse, continue to expect an ineffective response.  

ADD Version:

  • Sometimes, your spouse does NOT have the ability to listen.  Learn to ask.
  • If you aren’t coming to your spouse at an effective time in an effective way, you can’t get mad when they don’t listen.
  • Just knowing that YOUR delivery and your spouse’s response were all part of a jointly terrible moment can help get back on track.
  • Nothing shuts down your partner like criticism.  
  • If you do not have some sort of effective way to approach your spouse, continue to expect an ineffective response.  

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