“How was your day?”
“My boss was a real jerk.”
“Yeah. She made some errors, and now she’s demanding that my entire department come in over the weekend to clean up her mess. I kind of want to refuse. Stand up for myself. But I’m worried about getting in trouble.”
“Okay. Guess I’ll get a shower and clean up.”
Does that sound like an effective or productive conversation to you?
One partner was clearly trying to reach out to the other, but they just weren’t connecting.
Reading it like this, you might think that it sounds horrible. That you’d never do something like that to your spouse.
But the truth is that just about all of us do – at least from time to time. The world is filled with responsibilities that divide our attention and exhaust us to the point that we give minimal effort sometimes when we feel like it’s all we can do.
Television, cell phones, laptops, and other digital devices don’t help with this, either, pulling our focus away from what is happening in the moment. Even if we hear our partner say something, we may not actually listen, and choose to respond with a shrug, mumble, or even silence.
Do this too often with your spouse, though, and you’ll end up creating relationship issues, drifting further and further apart.
How can you stop yourself from falling into this pattern?
Pay Attention to Your Responses
Most of us don’t ignore our partners on purpose. We’re tired. Busy. Distracted.
Often, we may not even realize that we’re participating in this minimal way and how frustrated our responses are to our spouse.
This is why step one is simple and straightforward: pay attention to yourself. When your partner says something, pause what you’re doing and actually listen to how you respond.
Better yet, ask your spouse. Often, non-responses do not stick in your memory. After all, they are automatic responses that are overshadowed by activities that have our full attention and focus.
Your partner may have some surprising feedback regarding times when you simply shrugged or completely did not respond to them when they tried to start a conversation. By actively trying to pay more attention and talking to your spouse about times when they have gotten “non-responses” from you, it will be easier to stop engaging in this type of behavior.
Get in the habit of putting your work down, turning around, and looking your partner in the eye when they start talking. If you are in the middle of something that requires your immediate attention, tell your spouse this, apologize, and let them know when you will be available. If you do not hear them the first time, it is okay to ask them to repeat themselves.
Want specific advice on how to have more engaged conversations?
Respond Like a Tennis Player
No, you shouldn’t let out loud grunts with every response.
The idea is to think of every conversation with your partner as a tennis game. Their statements indicate the ball flying over to your side of the court. You need to pay attention to know where the ball’s going so you can send it flying back. And vice versa.
If we are still using the tennis game analogy, a shrug or not responding is the equivalent of standing still when it is your turn to hit the ball. These automatic responses aren’t enough to be considered “participation.” And a tennis match with only one participant is not a productive match at all.
Here’s how a normal, productive conversation might sound:
“What do you want for dinner tonight, honey?”
“I was thinking that we could heat up the leftover chicken from the other night. Is that okay?”
“I took some of that chicken into work for lunch today. Could we have something else?”
“Maybe we can just order takeout.”
In this “tennis game,” the players move the conversation back and forth, giving the second player chance to engage and respond after the first has finished.
When your partner says something to you, you are given the opportunity to respond in any way that you like. This opportunity comes with an infinite amount of choices and options, but often, we find ourselves automatically resorting to responses that don’t move our “tennis game” along.
Fight this urge. Apply intentionality to every possible part of your relationship. And consider doing this in every part of your life.
What is “intentionality”? Here’s a definition: “Intentionality is deciding what I want in MY life, and then BEHAVING in such a way as to make it happen.”
A few years after the publication of “Getting the Love You Want,” which is available in 20 languages and has sold more than any other book on committed love relationships, Harville Hendrix said, “Had I known back then what I know today, I wouldn’t have named the book that, but rather “Getting the Love You Say You Want.”
Hence, the importance of intentionality in achieving the marriage of your dreams.
Also, research suggests that successful relationships can be measured by the number of times each day that the partners turn toward instead of away from each other. Consider listening – really listening – instead of not listening in these terms. Every time your partner speaks to you, you can choose to turn toward them – or turn away.
As David Augsburger once said, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”
Want to unpack more relationship issues and address what is happening in your marriage? Reach out to a Houston relationship therapist today.