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Husbands, Learn To ListenÖ Better
One couple's therapy session reveals how husbands can become better listeners in 2011.
Husbands! Are you trying to think of a New Yearís resolution? Maybe youíll vow to lose weight or learn to ski, or maybe you will decide to spend more time with your children or to cut down on swearing? Although we often think of these things leading up to the ball dropping, itís during the next day that we begin to think of other things we should have resolved.
Remember that at midnight on December 31 whatever resolution you make wonít be the last chance. Thereís no rule breaking if you make a January resolution. So if you're up for it, I've got a resolution suggestion for you: Donít offer her suggestions without first asking if she wants it.
To understand what this means, I've got a story I'd like to share with you of a couple I help.
Barry and Tina, who have lived together for four years, sit in my office talking about a recent spat.
Tina says, "My daughter wrote and told me sheís angry that she always initiates our telephone conversations. She said she didnít want to talk with me for a while. I was devastated. When I told Barry, he immediately said, 'Write back and tell herÖ' I cut him off; whatever he was going to say would only make me more upset. I was already feeling unloved by my daughter and now he does this to me."
Before I open my mouth, Barry teases, "I know, I know. We men always give suggestions, and women just want us to listen."
Barry knows that. And many men know that, too. Yet, you still do it. Why?
Barry was teasing, but Tina wasnít smiling. "Help me understand," I say to him. "You know Tina gets upset every time this happens, yet you keep doing it?"
"Itís hard to change," he replies. "No, itís more than that. I want to feel helpful. I care about her, and if I donít offer her a suggestion, I feel Iím letting her down."
"But," I push on, "you also just said you know thatís not what she wants. So, itís like force-feeding chocolate, something you love, to someone whoís allergic to it."
"Yeah. I can see that, but," he hesitates. "I know it makes no sense. Tina has even told me if I want to be helpful, I should ask if she wants a suggestion. I hear her say that; it sounds so reasonable, but I donít know. I just donít think about it at the time."
Tina sits forward to speak: her voice has an edge. "Doesnít it occur to you that Iím smart enough to come up with my own suggestionsóonce Iíve vented? Sorry to break it to you, but your suggestions arenít so earth-shattering. Of course, I can figure out what to do. I get a double whammyóon top of your not being there for me, you insult my intelligence."
"Then fine," he snaps. "From now on, Iíll just shut up. You can solve all your problems yourself."
"You donít get it," her voice rises, "I donít want you to shut up any more than I want your suggestions. I want to feel you care that Iím upset, that you love me, that you have a shoulder for me at these moments when I need it." Then her voice softens. "I donít want to feel bad for needing your shoulder, and I donít want to feel stupid that I canít solve my own problems."
This conversation occurs all across the country. Men, what happens that you donít use what you know? That you canít just listen and be empathic? Or, as Tina proposes, ask if your wife wants a suggestion?
Barry says itís hard to change. Thatís what resolutions offer, a chance to change. So, consider this your new 2011 resolution, when your wife shares a problem with you, you will listen first, and then ask if she wants a suggestion.
Change is hard, but if the reward is big enough, itís worth the effort. You can be assured the women in your life will reward your effort by their abundant gratitude. And, of course, itís better to feel appreciated than rebuffed.
Dr. Karen Gail Lewis is a marriage and family therapist (39 years). Sheís also an author of numerous relationship booksóon enhancing marriage, on being single, on improving adult sibling relationships, and on strengthening friendships. He most recent book is "Why Donít You Understand? A Gender Relationship Dictionary" (GenderDictionary.com). She has offices in both Washington, DC and Cincinnati and is available for phone consultations. She can be contacted at DrKGL@DrKarenGailLewis.com.
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