Do you feel misunderstood by your partner? Seem to keep getting into repetitive arguments over the same things? Have hidden resentments toward him and a mountain of unmet needs? If you're like a lot of other gay couples, chances are your listening skills might need a jump-start; and if it's not that, then fine-tuning your ability to listen can go a long way toward bridging the gap between you and your lover and bringing about more clarity and connection in your relationship.
Conflict is inevitable when you're a couple, but how you go about negotiating it can mean the difference between cuddling on the couch together or sleeping on opposite sides of the bed when you retire for the evening. Being able to productively listen and attend to your partner is key for effective communication, and listening is also a pre-requisite for conflict resolution.
As men in our society, we haven't been trained real well in matters of emotion and communication. This can create a tenuous backdrop in a relationship with two men operating from the same conditioning. Not only can it be an obstacle to achieving true intimacy, but it can also cause partners to withdraw emotionally, avoid dealing with problems, or become competitive towards one another if not careful.
Listening is a very complex communication skill that is best taught in counseling or coaching sessions and there are literally zillions of manuals and books out there on the subject. I will try to simplify this using the Stop-Look-Listen model that is typically taught to young children with impulse-control issues. And mind you, I am not comparing us gay men to children! But this is a simple framework to operate from and I encourage you to read up on this issue in the other literature out there for more depth. Listening and communication problems are the number one reasons for conflict in relationships, both straight and gay, and this model will help you learn how to be fully present with your partner.
Step 1: STOP!
You and your partner are in the midst of a disagreement; you're both upset, tempers are beginning to flare, and the verbal lashings are about to begin... STOP! Remember that nothing of any positive consequence can come from an interaction where two people are angry and defensive. You're not properly attending to the issues because you're too busy trying to convince your man that you're right! The first step to productive listening is to defuse any potential conflicts by each of you setting the tone for positive communication and approaching each other with conscious intent for trying to understand each other and define the problem. You may need to take a "Time-Out" before proceding with your talk to help calm yourself down and get centered.
Step 2: LOOK!
So now you've come back together again after your cool-down period all relaxed and ready to be attentive. Great! You and your lover should go to a place free from distractions so nothing will disturb you and face each other, as you are now each going to take turns expressing your thoughts and feelings about your issue at-hand. One of you will be the speaker and the other will be the listener. No interrupting, Listener! Speaker gets center stage right now--you'll have your chance later! Speaker should have 3-5 minutes to share his perspective to keep the conversation concise and focused, and this also avoid the monopolizing of "airtime"; typically one partner can be more verbal than the other and this allows equal sharing-time.
No matter how much you get the urge to break-in should your partner say something that you don't like, hold it back! It's not about you right now, it's about you demonstrating to your man that you care and are invested in understanding life through his frame-of-reference, no matter how different it may be from yours. Listening is not about agreeing with your boyfriend and doing what he says, it's about being fully present and gaining clarity into each other's experience of your relationship. Be aware of any internal or external factors that could distract you and redirect yourself back to your listening responsibility. Nonverbal communication is integral as well. Make sure you have an open body posture, maintain good eye contact, give affirmative head nods and the occasional "mmm-hmm's", etc.
Step 3: LISTEN!
Now it's time to respond to demonstrate that you really heard your partner's message and can articulate his thoughts, feelings, needs, and experience nondefensively and without judgment. Speaker goes through a three-step process now to enact this type of scenario. Relationship expert Harville Hendrix developed a technique called Intentional Dialogue to provide a structure for open communication. The steps involved in this strategy include:
1.Mirroring: Repeat what you heard your partner say in your own words. You might use a sentence stem like "What I heard you say was..." Your partner will confirm if you are accurate or will help clarify the message for you until you can mirror it precisely. Avoid parroting back what your lover said word-for-word; instead, paraphrase back what you heard in your own language for more meaning and depth.
2.Validation: Find some grain of logic in what your partner communicated and convey this back to him. "That makes sense to me because..."is a good lead-in. You don't have to agree with what your partner said, but it's vital to tell him how and why his experience makes sense to you for the ultimate in making
him feel acknowledged and safe.
3.Empathy: Put yourself in your boyfriend's shoes and imagine what the experience must feel like for him, and say something to the effect of "I imagine that might make you feel..."
Then the two of you switch roles, and you will become the sender and your partner will become the listener and you repeat the process again. While this may not feel like a natural way to communicate, be open to it and give it a try! It's harder than it looks, but it is an extremely effective way to build trust and intimacy in your relationship as you support each other through active listening. Sometimes solid listening is all that's needed to solve a problem; other times we may just want to be heard without any intervention from our partner. A client of mine I worked with once said, "I don't want my boyfriend to problem-solve or fix anything. Sometimes I just want him to listen to me and be a sounding-board without offering any advice or opinions." Listening can be very therapeutic for a relationship.
Listening may not solve all your problems, but it helps create an atmosphere of nurturance and safety in your relationship. Listening is a precursor for effective conflict resolution, so don't underestimate its power and avoid jumping into problem-solving mode at its expense, as we guys often do. Look for the positive intent in all your communications and you'll both enjoy a more fruitful and enjoyable sense of connection in your partnership.
For more information on the Intentional Dialogue technique, refer to the book "Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples" (1988) by Harville Hendrix, PhD.
© Dr. Brian L. Rzepczynski, The Gay Love Coach