How to Get Through to Your Partner
“My husband doesn’t listen to me. He just tells me whatever he thinks I want to hear so that I’ll go away and leave him alone.”
“I’m sick of not being heard in my relationship. Whenever I try to have a conversation about a problem we’re having, she just waits until it’s her turn to talk so she can tell me I’m wrong.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard complaints like these from new arrivals to couples counseling or relationship coaching. It’s no secret that “listening to each other” is a vital skill for healthy relationships, and it certainly sounds simple enough. Yet so many of us go wrong here. Something about the way we communicate, especially during important conversations with the people we love, leaves one partner feeling unheard and the other feeling confused and defensive.
I’ve been a marriage counselor for a couple of decades now, so I know that this problem is very solvable, as far as relationship problems go. I also know it’s something you want to work on sooner rather than later — feeling like you can’t get through to your partner can eventually cause you to lose hope that your relationship can get better, and that’s what causes relationships to fail.
Whether you’re here because you don’t feel heard in your relationship, or because you stand accused of “not listening” to your partner, this article will help. I hope it empowers you to communicate in a way that connects, so you can feel seen, heard, and cared for by the person you love most.
I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic, which you can find on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. It’s a conversation between myself and my fellow Growing Self couples counselor Jennifer C., a marriage and family therapist on our team who has helped so many couples overcome this frustrating issue.
We discuss the reasons you don’t feel listened to, and some tips that will help you both feel heard (spoiler: Getting louder is not the solution!). I hope you’ll check it out.
Why You’re Not Feeling Heard in Your Relationship
If you feel like your partner doesn’t listen, talks over you, deflects your concerns, or avoids having difficult conversations, you may be getting super focused on the specific behavior that you would like them to change. But all relationship behaviors exist in a system, and understanding the entire chain of reactions is the true path to growth and change.
One of the most common “chain reactions” that will result in you feeling unheard is a pattern of criticism and defensiveness. If your partner feels criticized, whether or not that was your intention, it becomes very hard for them to listen.
Criticism feels like an attack, and when we feel attacked, our focus becomes defending ourselves. That can look like dismissing what the other person is saying (“No, that’s not right”), minimizing it (“It’s not a big deal anyway), or launching a counter attack to shift the focus away from us and back onto them (“Oh yeah, well what about what you did?”).
Getting defensive is not a conscious choice, it’s a reflexive reaction that we all have to real or perceived criticism. But when your partner grows super defensive when you’re trying to talk about something that’s important to you, it can feel like they’re making the choice not to listen. (To learn more about the relationship between criticism and defensiveness, check out our article on Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse).
Avoidance is another common culprit behind feeling unheard. If your partner tends to avoid conflict, tell you what you want to hear (perhaps even passive aggressively, with no intention of following through), or, if they shut down and refuse to communicate altogether, then avoidance is likely their go-to method for coping with stress.
Later, we’ll discuss some strategies that will help you have courageous conversations in your relationship when one of you has a tendency to avoid or defend.
Finally, if you’re not feeling heard in your relationship, that may be because there are some communication skills that you and/or your partner haven’t had the chance to develop yet. That’s okay — no one is born with these skills, and we typically either learn them in our families of origin, or when we hit relationship turbulence later in life and feel motivated to make some changes. In that way, feeling like you can’t get through to your partner, as frustrating as it is, can actually be a wonderful opportunity for both of you to continue growing together, which will make your relationship stronger and more satisfying.
Psychological Effects of Not Being Heard
If you are feeling like you can’t get through to your partner, it’s important that you address this problem ASAP. Relationships that feel unsupportive and invalidating often become unsustainable, and they can take a toll on your wellbeing.
You may struggle to validate your own feelings and perspective if you feel them constantly being dismissed by your partner. You may feel less emotionally connected to your partner as time goes on, until you’re feeling incredibly lonely in your relationship. When communication breaks down, it’s not uncommon for married people to develop crushes or even begin full blown emotional affairs as they turn to others for support and connection.
Eventually, you may lose the hope, trust, and loving feelings of love and respect that a healthy relationship needs to survive.
Setting the Stage for Important Conversations
If you need to have an important conversation with your partner, there are a few steps you can take to give yourself the best chance of feeling heard. These tips are the lowest-hanging fruit when it comes to having positive, productive conversations, but they can make a surprisingly big difference, especially if you, like many people, haven’t been thinking much about them.
First, take care of yourself. Don’t start an important conversation when you’re hungry, sleepy, or internally frazzled. Communicating under stress is just hard. Your patience will be shorter, your partner will feel attacked, and you’re more likely to have an argument than a helpful, healing talk. Have a snack, take a walk, or even sleep on it if you need to (you can disregard all that relationship advice about “never going to bed angry.” If you’re angry, you should totally go to bed).
Next, be sensitive to your partner’s inner state. Don’t rush into a big talk the second they get home from work, or when they’re distracted with the kids. Ask them if this is a good time to talk before you begin, and let them know that you can plan to talk later if they’re not feeling up for it.
If you choose a moment when you’re both in a calm mood and able to focus on each other, your chances of having a productive conversation are much higher.
Our authentic relationship experts know how to help you learn, grow, and move forward into a bright new chapter.
Communication Skills for Feeling Heard in a Relationship
There are also some communication skills that you can practice that will help you get through to your partner (or really anyone).
- Use a “soft startup”
Be mindful of how you approach an important conversation. When you’re frustrated, it’s natural to want to blurt out every negative thing you’re thinking and feeling, but that will only trigger a defensive or avoidant reaction in your partner. When you start these conversations with intention, you actually have a lot of control over how they go.
Here’s an example of a soft startup:
“I really appreciate all the work you’ve been doing around the house, and I know you’re dealing with a lot at work right now, too. But I’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed with the amount of childcare I’ve been doing lately. I find myself getting stressed out and being short with the kids, and I think I need a break. Could we talk about some possible solutions?”
Now imagine how the same conversation might go if you started it this way:
“Could you watch the kids for once? You realize I’ve been alone with them every night this week, don’t you? They’re your kids too, you know.”
Probably not well!
Leading with anger and frustration can feel cathartic, but it never gets you the support you really want. When you ease into important conversations in a way that is positive and shows your partner some appreciation, they will be much more receptive to what you’re saying, and less likely to get defensive or to shut down.
- Avoid blame and criticism
Instead of blaming your partner, or talking about them like they’re “the problem,” position the problem as something that is outside of both of you that you’re trying to solve together. To do this, focus on your own feelings, needs, and desires, rather than what your partner is or isn’t doing. For example, instead of saying “You never listen to me,” you could say, “I really want to feel heard in this conversation. Can we work on that?”
- Practice good listening skills
Most people have an innate desire to reciprocate, whether they’ve received a gift, or a kiss, or a supportive ear. When you practice good listening skills with your partner, you’re showing them how you’d like them to listen to you, and they’ll want to respond in kind.
Allow your partner to speak uninterrupted, and then reflect back what you’ve heard. Even if you disagree with their perspective, validate them emotionally. A validating response sounds like, “I hear what you’re saying and I really appreciate you telling me how you feel. It sounds like you’ve been frustrated and when I look at it from your point of view, I can understand why you would feel that way. Can you tell me more about how you’ve been feeling?”
Sometimes you have to listen to your partner first before they’ll be in a place where they can listen to you without getting defensive. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just do a good job listening to your partner, and then it will be your turn to share your feelings and perspective.
4) Be Emotionally Safe
Being an emotionally safe communicator is the secret to getting through to someone who avoids difficult conversations. If your partner shuts down in conflict, it’s likely because they’re getting emotionally flooded. They are experiencing you or the conflict as threatening, and so they’re freezing like a startled opossum. It’s not a conscious choice, it’s just their response to feeling unsafe.
If you want your partner to continue engaging with you, you’ll have to remain non-threatening. Lead with vulnerability rather than anger. You may find it useful to do some breathing exercises that will help you stay calm, so you can avoid raising your voice or growing more intense. If you’re becoming emotionally flooded and you need to take a break, that’s fine. Just let your partner know that you’re feeling worked up and you’d like to continue talking when you’ve had some time to collect yourself.
5) Watch Out for Negative Narratives
If your partner isn’t listening in the way you would like, avoid developing negative narratives about why that’s happening. These narratives can do more damage to your relationship over time than the communication issues you’re worried about. Here are some common examples:
“If he actually loved me then he’d want to hear what I have to say. He doesn’t care about me.”
“She doesn’t listen because she doesn’t respect me. She thinks she knows better than me about everything.”
“He is so selfish. He isn’t interested in how I feel or what I want.”
Defensiveness and avoidance are strategies for managing anxiety. They aren’t helping your relationship, but they also don’t say anything about how much your partner cares about you. In fact, if your partner didn’t care a lot about you and your relationship, they probably wouldn’t feel so threatened in moments of conflict.
Similarly, if your partner hasn’t developed certain listening and communication skills, that means they have some work to do — not that they’re a bad person. If you make the problems in your relationship about a character flaw in your partner, it will only become more difficult to communicate with each other.
Get Effective Help for Your Relationship
It’s one thing to read about these ideas, and another to put them into practice. Many couples who are struggling to communicate benefit from working with a relationship coach or a couples counselor who can help them both feel heard. This work helps you gain new skills that can transform the way you communicate, making it easier to solve problems together as a team.
If you would like support in this area, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
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How to Get Through to Your Partner
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Music in this episode is by Lebanon Hanover with their song “Broken Characters.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: lebanonhanover.bandcamp.com. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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