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.

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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). 

  1. 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. 

  1. 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?”

  1. 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

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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How to Get Through to Your Partner

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Lisa Marie Bobby: Is communication one of the biggest challenges in your relationship? If so, I’m glad you’re here today. We’re talking about how to get through to your partner and achieve communication that connects. My guest today is my dear friend and colleague, Jennifer. Jennifer is on our team here at Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s a marriage and family therapist. She is a relationship coach. 

She’s a premarital counselor, and she knows a little bit about communication and most specifically, the kind of communication, what to say, what not to say that will help you get through to your partner. So welcome, Jennifer, and you know, no pressure.

Jennifer C.: Well, thank you for having me, Lisa, and no pressure at all.

Lisa: No pressure. Well, that’s big, right? I mean, like we both know, as couples counselors that that’s a very huge pain point for many couples. And I can’t even tell you how many couples I’ve met with. One or both of them, it’s like, I just don’t know how to get through to this person, right? It is such a huge pain point, and let’s even just start right there. I mean, it’s such a common experience, and we are both also married, right? 

We have both also been there. What do you make of this, professionally? Like, why does it feel so hard sometimes just to be heard?

Jennifer: I believe it’s that we hear each other in different ways, and sometimes the what-we-expect the other person to do or how they respond gets in the way of us feeling heard or knowing how to move forward. So I find it so many times that it’s a misinterpretation as well. So when a couple have been together for quite a while, they start to anticipate or think that their partner is going to act a certain way or respond in a certain way. 

So I think sometimes we don’t feel heard, because we expect things to look or feel a certain way when they do it, and that can get in the way back. It’s those anticipations, expectations that get in our way often.

Lisa: Yeah, that is so interesting. So it’s not that your voice stopped working, it’s like that there’s a filter happening either on your side or your partner’s side, sometimes both, that maybe you are expecting a different kind of response and the one that you’re getting or hoping for, or maybe that you’re your partner is actually kind of interpreting what you’re saying it’s through their own filter.

Jennifer: I think it is that often that we think that our partners know more about us, and sometimes they do or they think that, well, I told you this once, so you should know to do this or to act in this ring. I can often give them their way, and then we feel like we’re not heard or not cared about. Sometimes too, when we’re talking about feeling heard, which is such an important part of a communication with partnership is that we don’t know how we actually feel heard from the other person. 

So I break it down into three categories. One, some people just feel heard when you go, “Okay.” That’s all they really need. They just need to know that you’re there. Some people need it reframed back to them. They need it change up a little bit. “Okay, this is what I heard you saying.” Then there’s the interaction back and forth. Other people need sort of somewhere in between. 

They need to hear that you heard from you reframing it and saying it in a different pattern or a different way, but also seeing the actions that you take with it, but it’s so much so that they don’t see that follow up. If we have a conversation, that’s a lot of words, and words don’t hold much water if you don’t see a difference in how the other person behaves or what they do, and so that can often make you feel unheard or uncared about your relationship. 

Lisa: That is such an excellent point. Because it’s a different thing, isn’t it? Because the one is just having a conversation about something and literally feeling. Like somebody is understanding what you are saying in that moment and having empathy for what you’re saying in that moment, and that in itself can be huge. But you bring up a great point, which is the other piece of this is like we had this conversation. 

I felt like you heard me and yet XYZ didn’t change. Therefore, I’m not getting through to you, either you’re not understanding, or you don’t care, but like, how can I help you understand that this is a very important thing to me.

Jennifer: Right, and that don’t care piece is so important because that is oftentimes when people feel like they’re almost roommates in the same household, is that you’ve brought up a concern that’s really important to you, and then there’s nothing that’s done. We have these conversations over and over and over and over again. We cycle through it, and yet, you don’t take any different actions. 

You repeat the cycle without feeling that there’s any recourse or continuing on in the same pattern, and that can make you feel very distanced in your relationship and uncared for.

Lisa: Yeah, it really can, that perpetual problems and not to be overly scary or negative, but I mean, you and I both know that most of the time when race relationships, and it is because of that. People eventually give up. Like I’ve said this 900 times, nothing is changing and start to lose hope that they can be heard or have the kind of relationship that they want. Okay. 

So if we could just break this down a little bit, because I think some of it that we’re talking about it’s like in the moment communication, and then there’s another piece of it, which is like creating change based on the things that we talk about, right? So I think we need to talk about those separately, almost. I think in some ways, it’s easier to learn and practice the kind of communication skills that will just help in the moment. Conversations go more easily, right? 

So maybe we can start there. I mean, if you’re in your roles or relationship coach, premarital counselor or marriage counselor sitting with somebody who feels like they are not being heard in the moment or getting the kind of responsiveness that they want in the moment, I’m curious to know what kinds of things you usually see as being the coachable opportunities in those interactions, starting with the person who is saying something.

Jennifer: What I find is really a coachable moment is looking at what’s going on around you first. So if you really want to be heard in a conversation, have you taken care of yourself? Are you hungry? Are you stressed? Is it a bad time of day? Are your children running around right now, if you have children? Is it that you’re just going to help them work? Have you taken care of yourself first? 

That’s true for yourself and who you’re trying to communicate with as well. Like, they haven’t taken care of themselves first. It makes it very hard to be present, and presence is the key to feeling heard in a conversation. Where are you having your conversations? Are you having your conversations over dinner? Are you having your conversations in the living room or in a space that feels safe and comfortable? 

So I look at the atmosphere too, and when you are having a conversation with the other person, are you sitting across from them? Can you see their body language? Can you see, well, put together their body language, their tone of voice and what’s actually being said, and putting those elements all together? Because if you’re busy on your phone, and you’re trying to have a conversation, you’re distracted. 

Once again, you’re not present in that conversation. When you add in those elements, when you start to think about your timing, when you think about where you’re having that conversation, it can help improve you feeling heard, as well. It’s if you’ve taken care of yourselves first, you’re able to be in that moment, taken care of some of the distractions and are very busy worlds, because we’re so distracted in so many different ways, and so really scaling it down so that you can really simply be present with the other person. 

Lisa: That is good, and I mean because really, I think we forget about that, like how important timing is, how important your inner state is. Are you frazzled? Are there kids screaming in the next room? Also, I think using those emotional intelligence skills to think about, okay, my partner also just walked in the door and they might have other things on their mind right now, before I come sliding in with this big, super heavy conversation like to be sensitive about everybody’s context. 

It’s like one of those things that sounds like such a simple thing, but it has a huge impact on the way these conversations go many times.

Jennifer: So important. Because if you are overly stressed, and you come into that conversation, and somebody asks that cherry on top of your stressful day, the conversation necessarily didn’t go away you hoped. It’d go sideways, fine, and then you’re both going to be left feeling hurt. There are ways that you could have had a conversation a little differently and learn from it, and had a better conversation and a better time, better timing, even if it was just that 20 minutes to calm down after a busy day.

Lisa: Yeah, that’s a great point. I think that is so smart, and I think even just reflecting on my own relationship, I think that this is something that requires a lot of understanding of who you’re talking to, as well, and just like some of those differences. So I’m a morning person. By 6:30 in the morning, I’ve had approximately five cups of coffee, and I’m making my list, like thinking about all the things, and my husband is not. 

So he wakes up and opens his eyes, and here I am perched on the side of the bed being like, “Okay, so let’s talk about this and this.” He’s like, “Stop.” I don’t really do that, because if I did, he would be like, and please go away. Though he tends to be more of a later person, and so he is ready to have conversations at like nine o’clock at night when I’m falling asleep on the couch, and so I think both of us knowing that just about each other. 

I don’t take it personally when he hits like away with you, like seven o’clock in the morning and vice versa. We both need to know that, the timing piece in order to have connection where we’re both awake.

Jennifer: That is such an important piece. 

Lisa: Yeah. 

Jennifer: Often, I would tell couples, okay, well, where’s your middle ground? Where do you both use your back, because, and meeting each other in those spaces? Both be at the best.

Lisa: The great thing is, though, that I love about just looking at the circumstances that there’s so much wisdom in what you’re sharing, Jennifer, because these are solvable problems. So many times I think when communication feels different, people go to like character stuff. Like, you don’t listen to me. I can’t get through to you. You’re not emotionally aware or whatever. 

It can go to so many different places that become personalized feeling, and it really doesn’t need to be that hard. Sometimes it is, and I know we’re going to talk about that more in our conversation, but the circumstantial things, low hanging fruit, right there that can make a big impact for real. 

Jennifer: It really can, and how we say stuff really does matter. One of the things that we were told as children, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It’s one of the first lies were ever told, because words stick with you. How you choose to say things, it’s very important for ourselves and for our partners and for our family we’re trying to communicate with, and you brought up a really important point about the “You”. 

“You” is one of the first things I try to take when I’m doing couples work or relationship work. I try to take that out. Because if you start your sentences with “you”, it is generally a blaming statement. So you want to really be careful when you get our statements to the other person, because it’s the low hanging fruits, easy to shift blame or to say, well, you did this so I did this and said tit for tat, but so often happens with us as we’re trying to play in the sandbox together, so to speak. So it’s really important to think about our language and how we’re saying stuff to each other.

Lisa: Definitely. So I’m saying that that’s kind of rule number one is also be talking about your own feelings and your own experience as opposed to anything that is about you did this, you did that, you feel this way, dot, dot, dot. It’s like, I feel.

Jennifer: My statements are such a game changer. And communication within couples. Has we stopped listening generally, when people start saying “you”, yeah, you do this, you do that defense. And we feel so defensive. And how can I win in this? I’m always the one to blame. And so many things that come up within our relationship but also from our past and other those other pieces. Play into our present relationships as well. Yeah, it’s really important, definitely, you take a hold and acknowledge your own feelings. Hmm.

Lisa: I think that’s one of the things that can be so challenging, I know like for me, as a couples’ counselor. I think I’ve experienced this, you know, personally as well, is that when we feel like we’re not getting through to people, when we’re not being heard, it’s very easy for us to feel hurt, or victimized or like other people are sort of not treating us well, which may be true, but I think harder to really understand how it is that we are coming across and like, you know, going back to that idea that relationships are systems, right. And so how we show up, really does have an impact on the outcomes. 

And as we mentioned, at the very beginning, there are also filters on the other side, which I know that we do need to talk about. But again, one of the easiest things that we could do is be very, very careful with our own language and especially the way we start these conversations. So is it a good time? How’s everybody feeling? And now I’m going to talk about me rather than you. Are we talking right now about that? Um, I can’t remember. Are you a Gottman girl?

Jennifer: I am a Gottman girl.

Lisa: Yeah, we’re talking about soft startups.

Jennifer: We really are. We are talking about the soft startups because it makes all the difference. Because if going into it, like all these things are wrong. I don’t want to hear that. 

Lisa: Totally. 

Jennifer: And I’m going to be on the defensive the whole time, but I’m going to go to watch. So now we’re talking about the Four Horsemen here. We’re talking about the different ways that we defend ourselves when we are in conflict. I guess it’s the best way for me to say about one, right? But a soft startup really does help avoid both content, the blaming, the stonewalling, as we are now and just talking jargon, should probably that’s it.

Lisa: Well, I was just thinking for the benefit of our listeners, we should probably define our terms. So as you may have heard, you know discussed on other podcasts, there’s a really just legendary researcher in our field of couples and family therapy. Dr. John Gottman and his wife Julie, Dr. Julie Gottman did the, what did they call it, the Love Lab or the Relationship Lab. But anyway, over many, many years, they did a lot of excellent research on relationships and couples, and really taking a look at the way that people interact with each other.

And came up with just excellent data. And over the course of this, found that there are four ways of being in particular that are very problematic and destructive for relationships so much so they turned to these “The Four Horsemen”. And they the behaviors of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Stonewalling being like kind of that avoidant gaslighting thing. And so that’s what we’re starting to talk about are some of these communication techniques and how they can avoid flaring up the Four Horsemen. 

And one of the Gottman’s biggest pieces of advice, which is what you were sharing, Jennifer, is this idea of a soft startup. Meaning that, when you are very mindful and careful in the way that you approach. Particularly, some challenging conversations you have a lot of control over whether or not you’re activating those Four Horsemen on the other side. So when you’re, kind of careful and gentle and talking about your own feelings, it is much less likely to elicit defensiveness or avoidance on the other side.

Jennifer: Yes, it’s so important. And it’s important to recognize internally. When you start feeling defensive, what’s going on? How do you know that you are having a hard time in the conversation at that moment? Like, is your face washed? Are you counting your hands, clenching your teeth? Is it good to continue on with the conversation at this moment? Or is it time for a mighty pause? 

And, I have found that in communication, especially when you’re talking about harder subjects. Is that sometimes you need pauses in the conversation so that you can gap yourself. And once again, we’re working towards being present and moving towards some sort of solution or resolution or at the very least understanding of one another. And sometimes those pauses can be so powerful. But how you do pauses is very important. Because when we look back at people’s history, and if they have felt abandoned relationships before. And you say, you know what, I need a timeout and you walk away. 

That person is going to feel abandoned. Once again in your communication and that you don’t care about what you’re talking about, and that you’re just avoiding. And instead, he said it’s really important to remember if you’re going to take a pause and actually walk away for a few moments to self soothe, and do what you need to. Is to say how long you need. You might need to say, you know what, I’m going to take a 10 minute break, but I’m coming back because this is important to me. And then take those moments when you find that you are overwhelmed, or the term from the Gottman’s is “Flooded by your emotions”. When it feels overwhelming to continue in the same cycle or in that same system of communications with one another in that moment, and you need to calm yourself and recenter yourself so that you’re ready to finish the conversation. 

Lisa: Yeah, that’s great advice. Well you know, and I think some of us need longer than others. I mean, when I get really upset, I need more than 10 minutes. I need to sleep on it, I need to do some journaling. And I know myself enough, by now I can get to a certain point where like, this is not going to be a productive conversation and to be able to say that out loud. And also, we were talking about really bad relationship advice at the beginning of our conversation. 

Also that old weird relationship advice, like don’t go to bed angry. That is not true. Go to bed. Sleep. I hate that because, okay so let’s stay up until 3am screaming at each other, let’s do that instead, that sounds so much better. But like, no. Go to bed. 

Jennifer: No. That is so important that you go and you sleep on it if you need to. And when I say, you take the 10-minutes, you come back in 10 minutes. If you’re still mad and as upset as you were before, then you decide together. 

Do we keep this conversation going? Nope. Then you decide a time when you’re gonna go back to it. Let’s pick this up tomorrow night over a glass of wine or whatever, just like in a comfortable position. And suddenly finding that works for you both. And because you can’t go to bed mad, okay.

Lisa: It’s preferable.

Jennifer: Because if you do not take those pauses, if you do not create that space that is needed in your communication, it is just going to escalate too high and you’re not going to get to the resolution of the solution that you’re looking for. And you’re going to feel more distanced and start turning away from one another because it’s not safe. Because safety and communication is very important. And it’s one of the reasons that you don’t feel heard. Because it might not feel safe to communicate with them because you’re not sure with their reactions or what’s going on. 

And when we let our conversations escalate to the point that we’re just yelling at each other, we’re no longer hearing the other one. We’re just sitting on our own points. We’re not getting to where you would like to. And, of course, you’re not feeling heard at that point.

Lisa: Yeah definitely. I’m so glad you bring these up. And again, just for the benefit of our listeners. We do have another podcast episode that goes into more depth on the experience of “Emotional Flooding” that I’ll refer you back to. And also another one on that emotionally safe communication. Both of those things are so crucial because either one of those, it just shuts everything down. And people get so frustrated because they feel like they’re not getting through in those moments. But I think it requires a lot of empathy to realize that either you or your partner is getting flooded, or it’s becoming an emotionally unsafe situation for one of you. 

And also people have different tolerances for emotional safety even, like, going to the culture of your family of origin sometimes. If your family were, it was normal that people would have passionate, intense conversations, you know, and that feels normal for you. You might not realize that your partner is experiencing that, as a lot of criticism, aggression, feeling very threatened, and like they need to pull away because just the way communication happened in their family was very different. Or they may have had other life experiences where it’s almost a trauma response. 

And so I guess my point is to not make it another thing to be upset with your partner, about, if they are maybe experiencing the moment differently than you are or that you would like them to be experiencing because there can be a lot there, right. But to make it be okay for everyone.

Jennifer: That is so very important, because that goes back to what I was talking about a little bit earlier with patients. And part of my career I worked for hospice. And I worked with families and with couples and what it makes families, is everybody grieves differently. They work through things differently, but they expect everybody to go through it the same way. And they often felt torn apart when the other person wasn’t experiencing it in the same way, or at the same place within the grief cycle. And the same with communication, when we have those expectations that the other person is going to be at the same place, or understand it, or will want to engage in the same way. 

Because we’re talking about engagement, they are faced with our family of origin. And what was comfortable for us is what we know or what feels safe again. But I always liken that back to grief therapy, and just the grief cycle and those expectations that we expect. Sort of on that same page, or same way of dealing with it. And when they don’t, you can feel so alone in that relationship sometimes. 

Lisa: That is a great point. Yeah, and just like to have enough self awareness, even realize that you have that expectation could even be subconscious. So it’s difficult to crack into. And you know, or else is starting to get to Jennifer, and I feel like I should mention this. Using the strategies that you’re sharing are very helpful. And to try these many times, it makes communication a lot easier, it makes it feel easier to get through to your partner. And the reason why people come into couples counseling and relationship coaching is that, many times there can be communication patterns in a relationship or things that get so entrenched or like some of these subconscious core beliefs or expectations that are so difficult to access. 

That it is very, very difficult, I think, for couples to put into practice some of these things that we’re talking about. So it’s almost like they feel stuck in these patterns. And that I know, working with a couples counselor like you, is to have somebody in the room, you can break that pattern, you can stop the cycle, it turns into a totally different conversation. Because as opposed to just having that reaction, which is the same thing that they do in their living room, you’re there to say, slow down. What are you feeling in your body right now? What is it that you want her to say right now? And it becomes much more introspective, like people are able to notice things about themselves and each other that is very difficult to do in the wild, so to speak. 

I want to say that because sometimes I worry that people hear this kind of tips and advice thing and be like, yes, we should be able to do that. And like, it’s really hard.

Jennifer: It is so difficult. Because we know a certain pattern, we know certain ways. And one of them never taught in school is how to really effectively communicate with one another and get to where we want to be. But trying these methods, it is trial. And it takes a while to find a rhythm that works for you. And that is where we sit with you to help you to take those times of reflection on yourself and how you’re thinking. And what you’re actually trying to say to the other person really can be so beneficial, but it is very difficult to do on your own. Because we know our intentions or we think that we’re saying stuff in a certain way, but not come across the way we think it should.

Lisa: Definitely. 

Jennifer: And so we kind of get in the way of ourselves sometimes. 

Lisa: Well, but that’s such a great point. And I think you know, your presence, you are creating emotional safety just by virtue of being there. And I think the other thing that makes it hard as you were just talking. I was thinking that I’m a huge fan of the Hidden Brain podcast. I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to it. It’s like psychology nerds unite. But there’s this one episode, I love it so much talking about, the difference between the way we think and feel and behave when we’re hot, so to speak, when we’re activated, emotionally activated.

And so it’s also true, you know, like listening to a podcast or reading a self help book, you’re thinking like, yes, these things make a lot of sense. And at the moment, I think it’s very easy to underestimate the impact of being emotionally elevated. And how it changes our brain like the way we’re thinking about things, you know, parts of our brain stop working when we get really upset. And it is said that I think to have the benefit of somebody like you who can help people feel more relaxed and feel more safe. It is a more productive conversation because people aren’t feeling as threatened in that moment. 

So I thank you for, for sharing what you did. I think that’s an important reminder. And also going back to the importance of taking breaks, my goodness.

Jennifer: Oh, of course. Because if you try to get yourself before the point of no return, which we all have that. And our communication, where it’s hard to stop yourself, where we’re just seeing it read, which is what you’re taught. What you’re referring to in our brain were parts of it stopped working. And even if in that moment, take a moment to just breathe, you’re restoring oxygen back to your brain. You’re creating a pause, instead of just reacting. And just taking those deep breaths and really do it. The best way of breathing that I teach people is square breathing.

Lisa: I love square breathing, I do that. I don’t do that, actually. But like, I have done it, I wish I did it more. It would really help me if I did more square breathing, Jennifer. Thank you for the reminder. When I do square breathing, I always feel better.

Jennifer: Because you can find a square in any room. You need that visual or if you need to touch it, there’s usually something nearby. That is if you need that tactile.

Lisa: Would you explain the method really quick for our listeners who may not be familiar with square breathing?

Jennifer: Yes. Square breathing is, there’s a lot of different ways it’s explained. So I will just practice that. But when you look at a square, there’s four sides to the square. And it helps you remember what you need to do within those moments. So first, I say for four counts, or four seconds, you take a deep breath to your nose, you hold it for four.

Lisa: Okay you imagine yourself going around the square. So like up on the side that went over the top for four. 

Jennifer: And then you let it out for four through your mouth. And fully let it out, let your whole body disengage. And go left and then take another four seconds just to bring yourself back to presence. And then you can repeat that several times. And this restores the oxygen back to your brain. So you can think more clearly in the moment. It also helps you from that knee jerk reaction that we all have, based on where we come from, how we know each other, there’s so many different variables that come into play. But it gives you that pause that you can take in the middle of a conversation, just to help regulate yourself just a little bit, so that you don’t go to that point of no return. And as my old supervisor called it, go up an arousal mountain, and when you’re fully aroused, and that you can not come back down because you’re stuck on the peak. 

Lisa: Radical mountain sounds like it should be more fun, Jennifer than it actually is.

Jennifer: It really should.

Lisa: That will be a conversation for another day.

Jennifer: But obviously, it has less than a couple of times. And in my couples when I talk about it, they’re like, oh. What does she have to talk about? 

Lisa: Wait, what are we talking about right now? Jennifer? I love it. Okay. Square breathing technique. Yeah, so kind of using the idea of a square to have sort of evenly breathed in, pause out pause. And that’s such a great technique to use when communicating. And I know it sounds kind of weird. But I’ve heard that technique described as kind of like a physiological hack, right? Like when we do get elevated, our breathing gets kind of quick and shallow. And you know, we’re getting all activated. And by intentionally doing big, deep, slow breaths, it is sort of communicating physiologically to your body and your brain that no, you’re safe. And you have to kind of engage in that first and then you will begin to actually feel differently, emotionally as a result of it. And so it’s just a way to kind of bring yourself back and have more effective communication at the moment.

Jennifer: Yeah, what’s really important to know about yourself. Well, is that some people do really well just doing the technique itself. Some people need to see that to be able to do it by following something around. And some will need to touch it until it’s just really important to know what your needs are. So you can feel engaged in that and engaged in a technique. 

Lisa: Okay. So many helpful strategies Jennifer, for helping that in the moment communication go better. I mean, you’ve shared so many things like the context, taking care of yourself, like the timing, being aware of talking about yourself rather than your partner, we talked about soft startups, we talked about emotionally safe communication, how to manage emotional flooding, like so many things. And so all of these techniques can really help that conversation go better. 

And in the beginning of our talk, we also talked about like, there’s that in the moment conversation, but also the people feel enormously frustrated when maybe that conversation goes just fine. But they feel like they’re not getting through to their partner, because it’s not turning into action. So I’m wondering if we can shift gears and talk about that part next. Because that one is harder, in my experience.

Jennifer: That one is much harder, especially if there’s not clearly defined boundaries, or what that looks like. Like, this is this issue. I don’t quite know how to solve it. But I would like to see you do things differently, or what that would look like. But I find a lot of times there’s not a lot of follow through. You’ll have this conversation and then you might not have a follow up conversation to review it. Like how are we doing? And so one of the ways that I find that it’s really important to help people see the actions being taken, is just to have a regular check in with one another. 

I know we had this conversation last week about X, Y, and Z. Do you feel like I am doing what you need to be able to meet that? And check in and then they have the opportunity without it feeling conflictual? Maybe? if they’re conflict adverse, to be able to discuss it in a safe space. To say, you know what, actually you need to do this as well. Or I really appreciate what you did. This might work better, let’s let’s work on this together. You know, you’re in it together, you can have a conversation about the conversation and about what you see is happening. 

So check-ins are a really effective method to see that action is being taken in a way that responds to you and your partner.

Lisa: That’s a great point. And I think, you know, because another thing that I think that marriage counseling and relationship coaching can be a little bit different in this regard. But there’s like that accountability piece, like you’re making commitments, you’re like, Okay, here’s what I’m going to do differently. And knowing that somebody’s going to ask you about that a week later, you’re like, Okay, I have to do this, but to be committing to those kinds of check-ins with your partner can recreate some of that accountability and increase the likelihood of follow through.

Jennifer: Yes, 

Lisa: Versus what I’m hearing you say.

Jennifer: Yes, because it just gives you the opportunity to be able to talk about it again, at a different time. And because then you also have time to reflect on that conversation. Did I say what I meant to say? Did I hear them correctly? Are there follow up things that I need to ask, to make sure that I’m taking the actions that are needed to meet my partner’s needs. Because it really is about meeting each other’s needs. And sometimes we don’t even know that we need these things, or that we expect these things. And that’s really important to know, on our long term relationships, because you’re always growing. You’re always changing. You’re in different chapters. And I bring that back to narrative therapy. It is one of the ones that I prescribed to as a relationship, as a marriage and family therapist or relationship therapist is, we have many different chapters in our lives, and within our relationships itself. 

And some of the chapters go exactly as we expect. Some of the chapters are much, sometimes we feel stuck within that chapter. And it’s how you choose to work together to get you through to the other side. And that is where those actions really come alive with that having the check-ins. And in no learning what you actually need from the other person or what to expect.

Lisa: Right. I could not agree more. And I was also struck by something. And I think our listeners probably caught this too, that when you were talking about having check ins, you’re talking about that as the partner who has been requested to make some change is actually the one initiating those check in conversations to be very clear. Like, is this feeling better for you my partner who has asked me to do something differently? 

Jennifer: Yes.

Lisa: And I mean, that’s probably very important. We should probably talk more about that. Because I think that in the experience of a lot of people, who are the ones who really wanting things to be different, they would love that. And maybe they’re saying, I would like for you to check in with me about how I’m feeling more frequently. And so like, in your experience, when those conversations are happening, I’d love to get your insight around what gets in the way of follow through. 

Although I just had another thought. The other thing that we just need to be honest about to, and also so for our listeners to hear this and not judge themselves or their own relationships. I think that many conversations between couples are very much based on feelings, like I am feeling a certain way, or having this experience. And I think that it does not always turn into an action kind of conversation. Like, I am feeling this way, because X,Y and Z and so if this were different than I would feel better. I don’t know that those conversations are already, or are always happening in a way that creates that kind of clarity and like action items at the end of it. You know what I mean? 

Jennifer: Well, so many of them need multiple parts for you to figure out what that even looks like. All you know is it doesn’t feel right. And it keeps happening. You want things to be different, you don’t necessarily know what that looks like. So yes, that’s true. Sometimes there’s not actual items. And sometimes the partner who’s working on those items, isn’t going to be the one forthcoming. 

So I just want that clear expectation too. Is that the way I talk about it, in an ideal situation, for both partners are very invested in wanting the change, very invested. And what I often say is to put others first, always putting your partner first, which means their needs are important. As well as your own needs, but it is working in unison with one another that picture yin and yang. The balance of meeting each other’s needs. So I’m saying that this is a very idealized situation. And so I want to emphasize that for the listeners that it really takes that investment from both of you to be able to get to that point. 

But there are times where you bring that up. You might not know what the action step looks like. But it’s important to follow up and continue to have those conversations if it is something that used to concern you or concerns you both in your relationship. And that it can take time to get to that resolution or solution. It doesn’t have to happen in one conversation. It can take more.

Lisa: Yeah. Like even in marriage counseling, I mean, we’re there for a while, peel on the onion and try to understand it all. In your experience. What are some other reasons why, even if the conversation happens just fine. People wind up feeling that they’re not getting through to their partner, because the change in the action isn’t happening. In your experience. Why is that when we’re talking about things, you know, this is important to me, but it isn’t really leading to change?

Jennifer: I think that still goes back to expectations and expectations within that relationship. And what you idealize of what your partner will do or how they will be or how they will react in situations when they aren’t doing that. In a way that feels comfortable for you or that it looks differently than the systems or the cycles that you’ve gone through before. It makes you feel unheard. 

And so I think the reason that happens a lot is sometimes based on our family of origin, or sometimes it’s based from past relationships. Sometimes it’s based on the relationship you currently have. And just the things that you keep seeing repeated and a lot of times this goes back to Gottman. As well as your negative feedback loops and that sometimes people just see everything that their partner does, whether they’re making an effort or not or feel that they’re making an effort is that they’re doing something you get some are not caring, or until they go through and no matter what it is. It’s not enough. And so sometimes people are stuck on that so that’s one reason.

Lisa: Yeah, that’s a good point. So if I’m understanding that to feel frustrated, like things are changing. What I’m hearing you say is that maybe I need to examine your expectations. And, like, let’s talk about what you think should be happening. Because there may be opportunities to work through like acceptance of your partner for who and what they are. Maybe they show love differently. And so it’s like, kind of exploring the source of some of those. Could be one way out of that. And then you started to talk about, like negative feedback loops as being another thing to consider if it’s feeling like stuck, and you’re not getting through.

Jennifer: Yeah, I think the negative feedback loop sometimes is a barrier to us feeling like the partner is taking any action towards what we’ve asked of them, or what we want from the relationship, but what we need. And sometimes we aren’t even able to see what they’re doing. Because we’re stuck in the old story. Like, they don’t care. They’re not making any change. There’s just the same thing, same fight, different day.

Lisa: So you’re saying like, if there’s a lot of negative priming, negative assumptions, like the story that you’re telling yourself is very negative about your partner that even if they are trying, it won’t be impactful? You won’t see it, you won’t feel it, because of that negative

feedback loop?

Jennifer: Yeah, that lens that you have right there in that relationship. So sometimes that gets in our way, as well. Another reason that I feel is, sometimes couples who don’t feel heard, or that there’s action being taken, is because they’re in a different season of their life. And the way that the season was maybe prior. How they communicated, how they connected, the fun they had, how they were able to do things is very different in this season. So like we could look at the different seasons of maybe getting married or having children, or the children moving out.

And so you’re different chapters of your life, or you got this big job promotion, you move. There’s all sorts of changes that can happen within your life, that you can feel disconnected or unheard. Because your expectations are that the person you’re with is going to react and be present in the same way they were in a previous chapter. And maybe timing, the stress, a lot of different variables may have changed how you’re able to communicate with one another. And how you are working throughout that season in your life, too. It’s very important too because sometimes in different chapters, we see each other less, we have less available time to be able to connect. And so like disconnection, just in and of itself.

Lisa: Yeah, definitely. Well, I think that’s such a good point. And that disconnection is oftentimes at the core of so much of this, you know that. And I think that’s a reality too. Like we think, if somebody makes as behavior change, then I will feel more connected or I will feel better emotionally. And that’s not always actually a straight line. And that sometimes we need to go deeper into the reconnection process. Because otherwise it’s just moving the deckchairs around on the proverbial Titanic, not to say necessarily it is sinking. But it’s like it’s difficult to touch the emotional space sometimes with behaviors. Yeah. 

Jennifer: Yes. 

Lisa: And I will also say one thing, and this is a lesson that I had to learn with a lot of humility. I think it was true for me. So, you know, I identify as somebody who has ADHD, it is a very real thing for me, as you and I experienced. So just for our listeners, Jennifer reached out so nicely about 12 minutes after our interview, as opposed to start to say. Like, “Lisa, are we doing this?” and I had these things come flying out and got totally distracted. I was like, the struggle is real. But I think that it can show up in a lot of different ways. You know, ADHD or not, is that many times when people feel like they’re not getting through to their partner, that changes aren’t being made. It is not uncommon that it’s because that partner literally does not know either how or what kinds of actions would meet the need. 

So I’m thinking of a very common conversation I’ve had with couples where frequently, not always, the female partner is saying things like, “I feel like I have to do everything.”, “I have to think of everything.”, “The emotional labor of this relationship is killing me.” That’s the conversation that they’re having, totally appropriate. And the partner on the other side, literally does not know what they could do to change it. Because they have not been acultured. 

So I had a couple that I was working with, where the answer was that the guy at breakfast had his planner on the table, and was just talking about the schedule for the day. And like, okay, we need this, this and this, and just like sitting there and talking and making a list. And yes, I can get dinner tonight. And literally, that was not a thing that would have been in his head. And I know that for myself, I have to do things differently in order to keep track of stuff or make lists or set little timers to remind myself to be at certain places at different times. 

But I didn’t always know that at an earlier part of my life. And so my husband would be frustrated with me because I would be late or I’d be forgetful. But at that point in my life, I hadn’t yet developed the strategies. And I just wanted to say that because, again, many times with couples, I think that there can be so much annoyance and frustration for change not being made.

But not enough empathy to realize. Maybe your partner is still trying to figure some of this stuff out and needs to do some personal growth work in order to be able to function in a different way. Like, I just think that needs to be part of the conversation. I don’t know about your experience, Jennifer, but I see that very frequently with my clients. And it can show up in so many different ways around sexuality, around communication. I mean, like some people just were never socialized to know how to communicate in an emotionally intelligent way that helps people feel cared for. 

And those are coachable, you know, but not intuitive.

Jennifer: Right? Well, I mean, and then we’re also talking personalities here as well. And how some or more intuitively and tuned. And others need more sensory, they had to be able to do that. But we don’t innately know what we need or how we work through things. And so it’s really important to figure it out for yourself. What system works, what process works and we mean grace to one another, as you are working through those key times.

Lisa: Jennifer, thank you so much for spending this time with me today. You shared so many, not just wise and insightful, but I think also actionable tips that like our listeners can take and experiment with. So thank you for being so generous in sharing your advice today.

Jennifer: You’re very welcome. Thank you for having me today. And I really hope that this is helpful for the listeners as they are working to feel heard in their relationships.

Lisa: Wonderful. Thank you again, Jennifer.

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