Ever notice how you or your mate can start talking about something seemingly minor and within a short period of time it has escalated to something very major? Perhaps it starts off about who left the toothpaste cap off the tube or who was supposed to bring the mail in and within five minutes you are so exasperated, one or both of you are hurling accusations about the selfishness or defective character of the other. Ever ask yourself, “How did we get here?”
There are many reasons things seem to heat up quickly. If you have not been connecting recently, your emotional bank account may be running on fumes. With little to cushion the tension that rises between you, you or your spouse may react impatiently or without thinking, which sets off the other.
When is the last time you intentionally focused on being thankful for your spouse? If you’re like me, you spend more time stewing over the things that annoy you than the things that stir appreciation. Why are we so prone to focus on the negative and ignore the positive?
Sometimes the stresses of life get in our way. We get going so fast that there is no margin to step back and smell the flowers and kindle a sense of gratefulness. We get hung up in the dutiful side of life and forget the importance of being thankful.
My husband, Gary, has been in sales all our married life. For much of that time, he has traveled. Sometimes he is gone for one night; sometimes for two weeks. No matter what time he arrives home he has a routine when he returns. Before he heads to bed, he has to unpack and put away everything in his suitcase.
“Come on, honey. Come to bed,” I would say. “It’s two in the morning. We can get that tomorrow.” Reasonable, right? Evidently not. He would stay up, make sure that last pair of shoes had hit the closet, and then lay down. Now, Gary is not usually particular about his stuff. That’s why I always thought this to be strange behavior. For the first ten years of our married life, I would shake my head, thinking he was strange. Occasionally we’d argue about it. On the next trip he might not unpack, but sure enough, the following trip, he’d resume his anal behavior.
My husband and I got in the first fight of our marriage painting our kitchen. We had a good friend over at the time and he was shocked that we would be having such a heated discussion. My husband had one idea about how to paint and I had another. That was the first of many arguments in our marriage and I wish I could say they were all conducted with respect and maturity but that is surely not the case. When we are feeling hurt, disrespected or invalidated our worst side can come out.
When we get in arguments, we may revert to conflict styles that are the product of our upbringing. Without conscious awareness of our experience with and attitudes toward conflict, we are likely to reproduce unhealthy patterns.
In early marriage, Gary was working hard to establish his career. He worked for a boss who was eccentric and wanted Gary to discuss business with him late into the evenings. With two young children and a wife at home, Gary hated these meetings but felt obligated to accommodate. Needless to say, over time, I felt resentful and disappointed. I decided to rebel one night and pack the kids up and take them to a hotel for the night so Gary would come home to an empty house and feel our pain.
If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit, listening is difficult. I would rather be listened to and understood than to listen to Gary. I want him to be riveted to my concerns about my day, but when he wants to offload the stresses of his, my attentions seem to wander elsewhere. Why is this? Why is listening so hard? When was the last time you listened to your mate with the sole intention of understanding their experience?
Before we get to what we can do to hone our skills, let’s explore why listening is so tricky.