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Effective Communication: Listening Vs. Complying

Lately you’ve been finding yourself stewing about how you’ll handle your last child leaving home, and you need to talk with your husband about it. You start to tell him what you’re feeling, but his eyes glaze over and he tunes you out.

You wonder how it came to this and if it’s fixable? You used to be able to talk about anything.

Just to be clear, I should point out that I hear this almost as often from men as from women. Wives tune out their husbands too…

Think back to when your children were little. You probably said lots of variations of “Listen to me; put your toys away and get ready for bed now.” Or later when you told your teenager to do his homework and he got in trouble for not doing it, and you said to him “You should’ve listened to me.”

Your children, whether they were small or teenagers, probably did listen to you, but did not comply with what you wanted them to do.

The expected action from telling (commanding, ordering, “shoulding”) is doing or complying. The expected action from sharing or revealing is listening.

Communication breaks down when you merge telling and sharing and can’t distinguish between the resultant complying and listening, and therefore, seeing them both as listening…or not. Often “he never listens to me” really means “he never does what I want him to do.”

Nobody likes to be told what to do, whether you’re a teenager or a spouse. Yet people do it all the time to their partners. Recall the British series, “Rumpole of the Bailey.” Rumpole always referred to his wife as “she who must be obeyed.” Sometimes it gets silly: I saw a cartoon once of a depressed, unemployed man. His wife was saying to him, “You were happiest when you were making tons of money. Perhaps that’s what you should be doing.”

I suspect that when his eyes glaze over and he tunes you out, there is a history of being told and he has coped with it by not listening. Unfortunately, your sharing got tuned out too, because in your mind and his your sharing got merged with your telling.

Effective communication is a central part of any marriage. Without it you are ships passing in the night. So reverse the slide towards alienation, be scrupulous about not telling each other how to live, but keep on talking and acknowledging. Do what you have to do to communicate life back into your marriage.

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Dr. Neill Neill retired his psychology practice at the end of 2013. He maintains an active coaching practice via telephone or Skype with select clients dealing with alcoholic husbands or ex-husbands. Check out his book, Living with a Functioning Alcoholic: A Woman's Survival Guide. http://drneillneill.com

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