Listen up (part 2)

(4 of 8 in a series for National Marriage Week)

In the last post, I suggested that learning to listen well to your spouse, even when you’re upset, is one way to embody Christian humility.  I’ve said nothing about the actual steps of listening because these are easily found in any good marital communication book or curriculum (see, for example, the classic “Speaker – Listener Technique” from the PREP team at the University of Denver).

Again, good listening doesn’t have to be complicated.  Having the right attitude is more than half the battle.

Photo by Michael and Christa RichertBut here’s a preliminary word of advice.  I suggested last time that what makes listening difficult is often less a lack of skill than the fact that our spouses have said or done something (often unintentionally!) to set off our internal alarms.  It may not always be obvious from the outside, which is why we need to pay attention to what our bodies are telling us on the inside.

I typically ask couples to identify their own signs of stress: what happens in your body when you’re starting to “freak out” or just get upset?  Most mention physical states such as cold hands, tension in the neck and shoulders, a churning stomach, tight jaws, or a fuzzy brain.  Some describe behavioral reactions, like going silent or crying.  The point is that I want them to notice what happens, in themselves and each other, when they’re going into a state of alarm.  If what they want is mutual understanding and connection, it will help to calm down first.

In practice, that means noticing when negative emotions are being stirred up, and then asking to take a break to get the time and space to calm down.  Building on the work of marriage researcher John Gottman, here are some of the principles to keep in mind.

Either person should be able to ask for a break.  Every couple should have a shared understanding that it’s harder to get through a conversation when either person is upset.  There’s no shame in taking a break, and both spouses should have the security of knowing that it will be granted willingly.

Set a time and place to return to the discussion. The purpose is to calm down before coming back to the issue, not to finagle an escape route out of the conversation entirely.  It helps to have a preset plan in place — a specific time and location that’s already been agreed in advance (e.g., 9:30 PM, after the kids are in bed, at the kitchen table).

Make the break at least 20 minutes.  That’s the minimum time it takes for most people’s physiology to return to baseline — and you may superficially feel like you’re ready before you really are.  Here’s one way to know.  Find out what your heart rate is (in beats per minute) when you’re at rest and calm during the day.  Then, during the break, take your pulse: if it’s still more than 10% above your resting rate, you’re not ready yet.

Do calming things.  The goal is to get your body back to its non-alarm baseline, so it doesn’t help to spend the break doing things that will rile your further.  Obviously, pacing back and forth and muttering, “How dare he say that to me!” won’t help; nor will playing certain video games or watching your favorite sports team.  Do the things that actually relax you.  Try to remember your spouse’s good qualities, and give them the benefit of the doubt: What she said to me felt really mean and spiteful, but I know she’s not generally that kind of person.  Pray: ask God to grant you patience, kindness, compassion, and self-control.

The next post will suggest some pointers on the attitudes we need to cultivate as we’re learning to be better listeners.