By Kyle Benson
Understanding your partner requires the capacity to listen. Really listen. Couples are advised to hear each other’s complaints without feeling attacked, and as great as this sounds, it’s often unrealistic.
When something you said (or didn’t say) hurts your partner’s feelings, there’s a strong impulse to interrupt with, “That wasn’t my intention. You’re misunderstanding me,” even before your partner is done talking.
Unfortunately, when the listener reacts to what the speaker is saying before the speaker gets the chance to fully explain themselves, both partners are left feeling misunderstood.
This is why the N in Dr. Gottman’s ATTUNE model stands for Non-defensive listening.
The defensive reaction
For most of us, listening without getting defensive is a hard skill to master. This is especially true when our partner is talking about a trigger of ours. A trigger is an issue that is sensitive to our heart—typically something from our childhood or a previous relationship.
While the phrase “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” may have some truth, it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that trauma and regrettable incidents can leave us with scars.
This could be a result of a number of things. Maybe you’ve been repeatedly hurt or you experienced injustice in your relationships. These moments from our past can escalate interactions in the present.
Maybe you feel controlled like Braden does.
So when his wife, Suzanne, tells him, “You have to make sure the kids have dinner cooked before you go to the gym,” he responds with, “Stop acting like my mother!”
After a few more defensive statements, Braden shuts down.
Braden’s heart races at the thought of Suzanne bringing up a complaint during their State of the Union meeting. Any complaint she expresses that includes a wish for him to change some part of his schedule around, he feels controlled.
Self-soothe to listen
While it’s important for the speaker to complain without blame and state a positive need to prevent the listener from flooding or responding defensively, it’s also vital for the listener to learn to self-soothe.
If you’re unable to self-soothe, your emotional brain will overpower your rational brain, the part that is designed to self-regulate and communicate, and you’ll “flip your lid” and say or do things you don’t mean.
As Dr. David Schnarch puts it, “Emotionally committed relationships respond better when each partner controls, confronts, soothes, and mobilizes himself/herself.” This is because the more partners can regulate their own emotions, the more stable the relationship becomes.
Self-soothing improves the stability of your relationship by allowing you to maintain yourself and your connection with your partner during a tough conversation.
Here is how Braden did it.
During their State of the Union Meeting, Suzanne started off as the speaker, protecting his triggers by stating her complaint without trying to control him. “When I asked about making sure the kids were taken care of and you responded by telling me I was acting like your mother, I felt hurt because it felt like our kids are not a priority for you. I want to make sure our kids are loved. I need some help.”
While Suzanne is expressing her experience using I statements, Braden is having a hard time hearing her.
He wants to defend himself and tell her how she is so bossy and demanding. But he understands that he isn’t supposed to mention any of these feelings until it’s his turn to be the speaker. And when that happens, he has to be sensitive to her triggers.
Below are some tools that helped Braden self-soothe during his State of the Union meeting.
Write down what your partner says and any defensiveness you’re feeling
Dr. Gottman suggests using a notepad to write down everything your partner says, which is especially helpful when you’re feeling defensive. This also helps you remember what was said when you reflect back what you hear or it’s your turn to speak. Remind yourself that you’re listening to your partner because you care about their pain. Lastly, it’s helpful to say to yourself, I’ll get my turn to talk and express my feelings about this.