How to listen to your spouse at the end of a hard day

One thing I’ve learned in marriage counseling is that the desire to fix your spouse is not just a gender issue.  Deal with the incessant demands of little people vying and competing for your time and attention sucks away empathy just as much as being male.

One of the key things I help couples with is helping them choose to listen with empathy even under stress or when neglect or hurt.  It’s hard to listen with empathy or patience, to practice generosity of spirit, when you feel your emotional needs haven’t been met or doubt it will be reciprocated.  What this looks like is frustration, irritation, invalidation of feelings, arguing about details, impatience.  What is sounds like is “You’re always so negative.”, “Stop exaggerating!”, “It’s always drama with you.”

I wrote this post a year ago, after watching this video, “It’s Not About The Nail.”

It’s Not About the Nail from Jason Headley on Vimeo.

Recommended for anyone who
– Has been told their eyes glaze over when they’re supposed to be listening
– Those who “check out” when their loved one “vents”
– For anyone who’s been told “You don’t have to fix me” and anyone who thinks the “It’s Not about the nail” video is an instructional video, not satire.

Vents are stories. And active Listening is like taking notes or highlighting and underlining when you are reading the story.  You don’t have to remember all the details (in fact, It’s not about the details, It’s not about the nail.  When in doubt remember this.  Write it down somewhere. Embrodier it on your underwear).
You start by noting and highlighting key parts of the story.  You capture key story elements and repeat it back, in psychobabble counselors call this “reflection”.

Now, once you have underlining and highlight and reading back what you’ve caught. You are on well on your way to your sweetheart feeling understood.  The next level, is like writing in the margins.  Reflecting back what they may be feeling, why the situation (drama) they are in is so important to them, what it means to them, what they haven’t said.  What they are venting about is not about the details, it is about how they feel.

Vents are stories, there is a beginning, middle and end.  The person venting might be stuck in the middle of their story.  You may see the end.  Do not, I repeat, DO NOT SKIP AHEAD!  You must demonstrate you understand the beginning and the middle before you get to talk about the end.  You cannot pass GO, you cannot collect $200, without this step.

Finally but perhaps most importantly: Vents are stories, there is an protagonist and an antagonist, a good guy and a bad guy.  And it should go without saying but I must,


Even when they are wrong, they are the GOOD GUY!  NEVER GET THIS WRONG!

Never get it backwards.  If anything you say implies they are the bad guy or smacks of you being more supportive of the real bad guys in the story, you are already in deep waters.  As well intentioned as you may be, as much as you want to lend your wisdom, YOU HAVE ALREADY FAILED!  YOU HAVE FAILED IN YOUR DUTY AS AN UNDERSTANDING SPOUSE, A “SAFE” PERSON, A SOUNDING BOARD, VENT LISTENER!  Your clues are them getting louder and more frustrated.
You’re options are to back away slowly, apologize profusely, go get ice cream or wine, rewind the conversation, be quiet, review your notes 😉

Seriously though, one key idea that will just never make sense or feel right to a lot of dudes, is validating how your spouse feels, does not mean you agree with them.  You can acknowledge, affirm, support how they feel without agree with their perspective.  It will feel as comfortable as sticking a nail in your own eyeball but it is one of the main keys to a vent going well (and going faster), communicating that you caught how they felt when they were in the middle of that situation that was so hard, unfair, ridiculous, stressful, hurtful, etc.

You do this and you get to pull the nail out, you get to help write the end of the story.

The end of the story may not mean co-workers become nice, that justice gets served, that kids behave, that things get fixed – it may just mean that she knows you are with her, really with her, no matter what.
Under pressure you will forget.  So write it down somewhere: validation is not agreement, empathy is understanding even when you don’t understand.  You might even tattoo it on your palm, so it’s the last thing you see when you facepalm yourself.

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Licensed professional counselor and health coach in Portland, OR Pre-marital and couples counseling. Individual counseling for anxiety, depression, insomnia, sleep disorders, sexual addiction, porn addiction, career, transitions, grief, burnout, personal growth.

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