Listen Up: Why You Don’t Feel Heard in Your Relationship

angry partner with megaphoneI received a call from a woman the other day in my office. She wanted to start couples therapy with her husband of 10 years. As I inquired about what was going on, I quickly learned that when the couple attempts to talk to each other, it becomes heated and they end up in a fight. She wants to come in to work on the communication skills she’s attempting to use.

I receive these kinds of calls regularly from people struggling in their marriages and relationships, and perhaps eight out of 10 couples who call me for therapy are looking for help with communication. Most self-help books and even many professionals will tell you that the key to a better relationship is good communication.

Solid, healthy communication is essential in any relationship because it’s the pathway to intimacy. When we talk and share our feelings, we feel closer to others and often get our needs met.

However, talking is only half of the equation when it comes to good communication. The other half is listening.

Without the capacity for good listening, communication becomes irrelevant.

As a human being, you have a deep desire to be heard. It started when you were a baby and needed your caregiver to hear your cries for support. The important piece of this early dynamic is not what your caregiver did or said in response to your communication, but that you were heard, period.

There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to share your thoughts or feelings with your partner only to experience deflection or defensiveness.

Being vulnerable and expressing your innermost needs and desires can be terrifying. If you’re met with resistance or feel unheard, you might experience a sense of abandonment or even shame.

Being heard conveys that your thoughts and feelings matter, and it paves the way for a deep sense of trust.

Anyone can talk. Not everyone can listen.

How do you know when you’re being heard?

When you try to communicate with your partner, check in and notice if any of the following issues arise:

  • Your partner flips the topic around so that you become the problem.
  • You’re told that you’re being ridiculous or that you’re overreacting.
  • Your partner’s response is focused on why he or she feels the same way.
  • Your partner leaves the room.
  • It seems like you’ve been heard, but then the same issue resurfaces later.

The inability to be a good listener can stem from several underlying issues, and it’s important to understand what these might be before trying to fix things. Don’t presume that it’s simply because your partner doesn’t want to hear you.

The most common reason people can’t (or don’t) listen is because they shut down the capacity as a defense against experiencing discomfort. This can happen, for example, when you drive a point home beyond what is necessary, which compels your partner to shut down and stop listening even when the intention to hear you is there. You should have to communicate something only once or twice for it to be heard.

The inability to be a good listener can stem from several underlying issues, and it’s important to understand what these might be before trying to fix things. Don’t presume that it’s simply because your partner doesn’t want to hear you.

Sometimes a partner can feel overwhelmed by his or her own feelings, forcing the person to shut down or stop listening. This happens when there’s a low tolerance for emotions or if the person grew up in an environment where he or she was consistently overwhelmed by other people’s feelings.

Timing can also create a block for good listening. Trying to share what you have to say when your partner is just walking in the door after work or tending to a screaming child is unproductive for being heard.

Resentment can also impede listening skills, so check in with yourself to be sure you have honed in on your own listening skills before demanding this of your partner.

Lastly, anxiety, stress, and even attention-deficit issues can cause a partner to struggle with listening skills.

Maintaining a sense of compassion and understanding for why your partner can’t listen to you is a first step toward improving this dynamic.

On a more practical level, Imago therapy uses a truly helpful technique with couples to improve intimacy, with the main focus on listening. It’s called “mirroring” and it requires great focus and patience.

It’s not a practice I recommend trying outside the therapy room if your conversations easily escalate. If you can remain civil, you can begin a process whereby your partner listens to you and repeats back what you have said. The goal is exact reflection (hence the name “mirroring”).

The challenge for the listening party is to resist making a point or responding defensively. The only job of the listener is to repeat what he or she heard.

Start with these steps:

  1. Ask your partner if it’s a good time to talk. If not, schedule a time that would work for both of you.
  2. When you talk to your partner, speak concisely—stay on topic and convey the most important points.
  3. Pause between statements and ask your partner to repeat back to you what he or she heard you say. If it’s correct, let your partner know and continue. If he or she missed it, say it again.
  4. Continue until you feel completely heard and that your issues or concerns have been received accurately. Then switch roles and let your partner respond or express his or her thoughts and feelings with you as the listener.

If your partner becomes defensive, frustrated, or is unable to do this, abandon the idea and consider contacting a therapist.

Remember: listening is a capacity that can be diminished or strengthened depending on a person’s history or experience. While communicating effectively with your partner is an essential piece of your relationship puzzle, don’t give up without giving your communication style the benefit of professional support and guidance.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andra Brosh, PhD, therapist in Los Angeles, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 25 comments
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  • audra

    audra

    August 10th, 2015 at 10:19 AM

    Seriously it’s because my husband just does not listen to me anymore :/

  • Kryz

    Kryz

    September 13th, 2016 at 7:41 PM

    How so

  • MR

    MR

    October 21st, 2016 at 8:38 PM

    I feel like this is generally a good article, but it seems there’s much more of a burden placed on the listener than there is on the person actually communicating. Telling someone to simply “not be defensive” is a good start, but this is very often because the one talking is making accusations or not fighting fair, and this completely undermines the purpose of communication and breaks it down. There should probably be some examples (or more of them, rather) of what to avoid when you are the one communicating since that is every bit as often the problem, and lays the groundwork for the one listening.

  • Elaine

    Elaine

    August 11th, 2015 at 4:04 AM

    Maybe the process should be more that we start couples therapy with our intended spouses way before we actually tie the knot and say I do. I think that there are times when we are so in love with each other before getting married that we are a little blinded by the things that our partner actually does when we are having discussions. We feel these things like we are being ignored or made to feel like we are to blame only after we have been married for a while and then it makes you feel helpless to change things. Working on things like communicating with each other before getting married could be something that could be beneficial to many couples, teaching you the skills that you need before you actually encounter the problem.

  • Evan

    Evan

    August 11th, 2015 at 11:30 AM

    Wouldn’t it be great if all marriages came with a mediator?

  • Jay

    Jay

    February 9th, 2018 at 9:38 PM

    More like a psychiatrists

  • rory t

    rory t

    August 12th, 2015 at 10:34 AM

    Well look at it this way- we all have to admit what part of this we play, and are we actually communicating that which we wish for our partner to hear?

  • Dominique

    Dominique

    August 14th, 2015 at 7:41 AM

    and just to add to rory t’s comments- I would like to know if all of us who are complaining about not being heard, if we are listening when our spouses try to talk to us too.

    It is so easy to always point the finger at someone else and say that they are the ones who are to blame, and maybe they are and then again maybe they are not. Maybe we would be well advised to actually own and share some of that responsibility.

  • colleen

    colleen

    August 16th, 2015 at 10:59 AM

    Relationships are full of all sorts of gives and takes

    But they are even harder when it always feels like there is one doing all of the giving and another who does all of the taking

  • Tayla

    Tayla

    August 18th, 2015 at 1:06 PM

    Another topic in relation is when your partner hears you but does not respond in a loving and caring way. Why express your thoughts and feelings if your partner wont be there to comfort you or accept you feelings and thoughts.

  • Laurel

    Laurel

    August 15th, 2017 at 9:34 PM

    After 25 yrs your husband should know by now that he needs to validate my feelings but when I share something intimate or deep he says nothing back I guess cuz he doesn’t have a clue. But geez say something after listening to my thoughts. And yes it’s the way you share with him so he won’t feel attacked. I’ve tried everything and sadly nothing has changed or gotten better. A sad story:(.

  • DeeCee

    DeeCee

    September 4th, 2017 at 8:38 PM

    OH Laurel, I feel your pain. Many of us have learned to be hypervigilant to our partner’s sensitivities…pushing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to share what we are feeling without attacking the other, and are met with crushing silence. For me, it only solidifies the bad feelings or concerns I was trying to express, leaving you standing there exposed and empty handed. As the saying goes, “words may sting like hell, but silence breaks the heart.” I share your story no doubt. Chin up. You matter too, even if you are surrounded by messages that you do not. XX

  • Geraline T.

    Geraline T.

    September 3rd, 2016 at 6:57 PM

    Hi everybody well my man is not a good listening I will talk with him then ask him what did say just say one thing I said and can’t answer and he irritates me a lot but because he always be trying to be like me instead of being himself do almost everything I do and that’s make my blood rush and I feel like I don’t belongs in a relationship don’t know why if you know please help

  • Rachel

    Rachel

    April 13th, 2017 at 12:36 AM

    My husband is deaf but reads lips. When we have a disagreement he refuses to look at me. I can tap his arm, wave my hand in his face or even stand directly in front of him and he still refuses to look at me so that I’m never allowed to get my thoughts/opinions out. I’ve tried telling him how much that bothers me and that it’s hurting our relationship but he says no it’s not. Been together 17 years with 5 children together. I’m getting really worried about this.. Don’t know how to get through to him just how serious this is. Rarely he’ll say OK I’m listening, what do you NEED to say? All while huffing and puffing and rolling his eyes. Any advice?

  • John

    John

    May 14th, 2017 at 12:06 AM

    I’ll listen to you when I’m getting paid $85/hour to do so. If you want to complain, call your girlfriend. If you want help to identify a solution, I’m happy to help. Have you ever considered how painful it is for men to listen to constant whining when the person won’t even attempt to solve the problem? Constant complainers get dumped pronto. Must people who feel they aren’t listened to talk too much.

  • Tinker

    Tinker

    September 17th, 2017 at 9:01 PM

    1) This article isn’t about forcing someone to listen to you whine.
    2) Stay single. You’ll be happier, seriously.

  • b

    b

    May 20th, 2017 at 6:37 AM

    i’m no profesional, and i can’t speak for everybody, it’s just my opinion but i don’t think treating your spouse like they are stupid and making them repeat after you like a child is a very polite, loving, or respectfull way to communicate just so you feel heard. my husband does this to me all of the time because i don’t communicate or think like him. he does it so he feels heard, but then i’m the one who ends up not feeling heard. i cannot wait to get a job and be more self sufficiant…

  • Laurel

    Laurel

    August 15th, 2017 at 9:39 PM

    I am not heard ever. And after years of not having my feelings acknowledged it tends to do major damage. I pretty much can’t stand him anymore.

  • Julie

    Julie

    August 27th, 2017 at 4:28 PM

    b & Laurel
    I know your pain, my husband can’t talk to me civilly without getting angry and yelling at me. He is always right, is very reluctant to ever apologise about anything because he’s never wrong. I have wracked my brain trying to help our situation, well I say our situation, he says my situation. Like Laurel, I have lost hope and love for my spouse, he’s overly generous giving himself expensive gifts, but to me our children & extended families & friends he pays out for no gifts. He’s selfish yes, he wouldn’t say he was because I’m the selfish one, I’m the money grabber in his eyes. At least I know, our children, family & friends know that it’s different. It breaks my heart he’s so mean but he won’t change. My husband doesn’t like my family who have been my friends when he was doing his own thing early in our married life, we’ve been married 43 yrs. I’ve left him, went back because he said he’d change, he changed for 3 months then he gradually slipped back into his old ways. When he’s really angry with me he will get me to repeat what he’s said like a little child who is being reminded of something they are to remember. This is very degrading & embarrassing, as well as not being polite or loving of that person. The one they are treating this way is the person they are supposed to love & cherish. That has flown out the window. I to have lost so much love for my husband as he’s so self absorbed that he doesn’t know how to show love & compassion to me. I don’t know how our lives will fair in the future as a married couple. My husband has changed a lot over the years, & not for the better, verbal abuse has reigned in our marriage, it’s brought my self esteem down to the ground. Hopefully with professional help I can rebuild this & then decide which way my/our lives are heading. I don’t want to change my life at 61 yrs of age but I will if I’m not shown respect & love in our marriage, just to be able to talk to my husband without getting yelled at would be a blessing in itself. Life is too short for verbal crap to be spewed out at the supposed person you say you love.
    Julie

  • DeeCee

    DeeCee

    September 4th, 2017 at 8:51 PM

    Julie, I wish you all the strength, courage, and self-love necessary to lose him. Your husband sounds like mine- a narcissist, for which there is no recovery. In the end, it is you who will be found.

  • Michelle N.

    Michelle N.

    October 30th, 2017 at 7:48 AM

    Julie, I feel your pain, my husband is the same as you describe, and will not listen, often tells us to shut up and if he doesn’t agree with what we are saying, he says you are ridiculous. He blows up over everything, and seldom apologizes. We are all weary of dealing with him

  • K

    K

    July 26th, 2017 at 8:57 AM

    I’m asking for a solution with a sibling. I think the same thing applies. What do you do when there is a history of bad blood that has been recently cleared and she disagrees with just about everything that I say. For example, I can be saying in my point of view, I believe both shows are about nothing with Seinfeld and Friends or Big Bang Theory and Seinfeld have crazy characters like Chandler and Kramer. To which, shee responds with no, it’s not. They are to totally different. To which, I reply with that’s your opinion. Then, she continues to tell me random facts about the director and definitions about it. Thanks for sharing when I know, it’s not the same director to which her response would be no, it’s not .
    How do you ask someone to paraphrase that particular scenario when its not something they are willing to listen to. For example, I could say we have differing viewpoints that you (my sibling in this case ) aren’t willing to accept, acknowledge, or respect. As she continues to either remain silent or say no, it’s not. By this point, it’s not worth it, so I walk away.

    I ve already said all that needed to be said. So, why should I stay and listen to the fading echo? I just don’t feel valued or accepted, though I’m heard because of the non-agreement.

    Any advice? Thanks!

  • Jonathan

    Jonathan

    October 22nd, 2017 at 3:34 PM

    What is this “Check In” nonsense I am reading on these psych sites. This isn’t a terminology I am familiar with can someone please explain what this is and how does one “Check In”

  • Andra

    Andra

    October 30th, 2017 at 10:43 AM

    Jonathan – I wrote this piece two years ago and just re-read it to see where I used “check in”. You’re right it’s a self-help term that gets used frequently, but it really doesn’t offer much direction. I can only speak for my own writing and tell you what I mean by it. Checking in (with yourself) is taking a moment to see how you feel and what’s coming up in thought and emotion. We so often don’t take that moment to understand our own feelings, especially in heated moments. So what it ultimately means is take a moment of personal reflection. Hope that helps!

  • Tammy

    Tammy

    December 5th, 2017 at 1:18 PM

    Good article just what I needed

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