Tag Archive: relationships

The Art of Listening

The Listening Center believes strongly in the power of listening.  (Hence, the name.)  Our Vision statement reads:

The Listening Center believes that active, respectful, intuitive listening by professional therapists, fitness coaches, behaviorists, and other health care specialists will ultimately enable and empower individuals to hear their own story and realize that they can make a difference in the quality of their life.”

The truth is the quality of both your relationships and your work will improve dramatically if you hone your listening skills.  In relationships, communication breakdown is often behind many of the issues people face.  While it is important to work on being clear with others in what you say and what you are asking for, it is equally as important to be an effective listener.  Everyone wants to be heard, to be acknowledged, and to know that they are cared for.  In work, active and focused listening will help you see both possibilities and the holes in what is being said to you.  A good listener is a much better business person than one who only half-listens to what is being said simply because a good listener won’t miss as much.

The good news is that listening is a simple skill to hone.  The biggest step you can take is to simply be aware of how you are listening.  Just focusing on listening better will make you an exponentially better listener.  If you find your mind wandering while you are listening to another, simply redirect your attention and focus back to the person speaking.

There are two main components to being a good listener.  The first is the active component: your attention.  You cannot be a good listener without actively paying attention to what someone is saying to you.  Actively focusing on what is being said, how it’s being said, and any non-verbal cues from the speaker are all avenues on which to focus your attention.  The other main component to listening is more receptive in nature and that is being open and receptive to what another is trying to tell you.  Very often our own judgments, agenda, prejudice, or assumptions block us from really hearing what someone is trying to tell us.  That’s why it is so important to keep an open mind and an open perspective when you are listening to someone.  For instance, how often do we get stuck in a communication rut with our loved ones, having the same argument over and over?  Next time, clear your mind of all preconceived notions about what the other person is saying to you and try to take it in as if it was your first time hearing it.  This might help you have a fresh perspective and open up a line of communication between the two of you that had previously been closed.

A final tip on being a good listener is a strategy that “double-checks” you to make sure you really heard what someone was trying to tell you.  Sometimes, even if you are a great listener, you might misinterpret someone simply because they are having a hard time being clear.  That’s why most good listeners will reflect back what a person has said in an effort to be sure they heard it right.  This is a great tool for relationships because it cuts down on the possibility of miscommunication and it helps to make both parties in the relationship feel heard and validated.  Most reflect-back statements start something like, “So what you’re saying is…..” and then you just simply repeat what you heard.  If you got it right, great.  If not, the speaker has the opportunity to clarify.

We will end with one of our favorite quotes about listening, featured on the home page of our website:

“I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.” -Rachel Naomi Remen

“It’s Not What You Said, It’s How You Said It”

Chances are, you have heard your spouse say this or something similar more than once over the course of your relationship.  Sometimes, he or she has misinterpreted your tone of voice and, in fact, there was no ill-will behind the benign statement you made.  But, often your spouse is fairly accurate in picking up the non-verbal cues that you may have been trying to stuff or hide.  And, while your statement may have been benign, the intention or feeling behind it was not at all, which is what your spouse picked up on.  After all, we all learned how to communicate and to understand each other long before we learned how to speak or understand language.

There is a common exercise utilized by acting teachers that demonstrates this very phenomenon.  The actors are given a 5 or 6 sentence script of open-ended statements that could mean just about anything.  For instance:


“Hi.  How are you?”

“Fine.  And you?”

“I’ve been to the store.”

“Did you find what you needed?”

“Yes.  I’ll have to get going soon.”


Then the actors are given a background story and an intention.  If you have ever watched this exercise done in person, the different messages and connotations these few benign sentences can hold are rather astounding.  Each pair of actors’ performance is completely different because their stories and intentions are different.

You and your spouse have your own unique story that is always evolving.  And, if you are a couple in distress, you might be harboring a lot of ill-will towards each other, which is natural.  While communication breakdown is often something that needs to be addressed, along with learning proper communication skills, the fact of the matter is all the skills in the world can’t mask ill-will and negative feelings toward your spouse. They will hear the intention behind the words, and know your real feelings.

So, what to do? How can you begin to address this underlying communication issue?  Goodwill towards your spouse is not a skill to be taught, but rather an attitude or perspective to be consciously cultivated.  Here are some tips:

  1. Consciously choose to focus on the positive in your partner.  Make a list of his/her positive attributes.  If you find yourself focusing on the negative, stop and switch it to the positive.
  2. Learn about your spouse’s emotional needs; what makes him/her feel loved and valued by you.  It may not be what makes you feel loved and valued, so don’t make the mistake of only showing love as you would like to receive it.
  3. Tender touch is a basic human need.  Affectionately and tenderly touch your spouse on a daily basis.  This will increase your feelings of goodwill, as well as your spouse’s.
  4. When your spouse does something that angers or displeases you, channel your internal dialogue into a more positive and healthy avenue.  For example, “This really bothers me and angers me, but I know he means well and does not want me to feel this way.  He is my friend and I need to love him and respect him even in this moment.”
  5. Keep a gratitude journal and make sure you always include things about your spouse for which you are grateful.  It can be certain qualities, something he or she did that day, or simply that your spouse is alive and well that day.

Most married couples are busy.  Very busy.  They’re juggling kids, their careers, the house, aging parents, friendships, siblings, and, of course, lest we forget – each other.  Often it’s the marital relationship that gets put on the back burner.   And, as the saying goes… “The problem with putting things on the back burner is that they eventually dry out.”  The following are some tips to help couples stay connected and keep their marriage from drying out:

1.  Make time for each other.

Your time together should be priority number one.  After all, your relationship is the backbone of your entire family.  Scheduling date nights for you and your spouse is always a good idea.  If you have been hit hard financially because of the economy, keep the date nights more low-key and affordable by staying in and cooking together.  Spice it up by cooking something your kids would never eat, light some candles, and put on some great music.  If paying for a babysitter is an issue, consider arranging a kid exchange with one of your neighbors or friends.  “I’ll take your kids on Friday if you take mine on Saturday.”

2.  Be a team.

Think of yourselves as a team.  Always aim to do what would best serve the team – sometimes, you’ll have to “take one for the team” and other times, the team will have to “take one” for you.  Protect and support your team member, your spouse.  Try to make things as easy as possible for them.  Make decisions as a team, tackle problems as a team.

3.  No scorecards.

Though you are a team, scorecards are out.  After all, teammates don’t keep score on each other; they keep score on opposing teams.  If you find yourself keeping a mental ledger of “I did this and this and this and this, while he/she only did that and that,” stop immediately.  It is vital to come with the mentality that “It all evens out.”  There will be days you bear more of the weight and days your partner bears the brunt of it.  Maybe you’re partner gets injured and you have a couple months of doing more than your share.  Be there for your teammate.  It will come back to you tenfold.

4.  Give each other a break.

It is important to give your spouse plenty of breathing room.  If he/she has had a bad day and is stressed out, tense or irritable as a result, don’t take it personally and criticize them for it.  Ideally, try to do whatever you can to alleviate the stress.  At the very least, don’t add to it by reacting to it.  Remember, you too will want that same breathing room when it’s your turn to have a bad day.

5.  Don’t be too rigid.

The truth of the matter is, no matter how well you plan (and you should plan if you have a lot on your plate), when you’re juggling a lot of different responsibilities, something is bound to go not according to plan.  If you let that throw you into a tailspin every time it happens, you and your spouse will have a bad day, everyday.  Instead, expect a deviation from the plan.  Embrace it as an opportunity to strengthen your team and a challenge the two of you can overcome together.

6.  Laugh often.  Laugh A LOT.

Laughter is the best medicine.  A couple that laughs together, stays together.  Don’t take life too seriously.  It’s meant to be fun!  When things go wrong, learn to laugh about them together afterwards.  Share funny stories and moments with each other.  Watch funny movies and TV shows together.  Be goofy together – make each other laugh as often as possible.

7.  Be the best for each other.

Most marriage vows have a “for better or for worse” clause.  While it is important to know your spouse is there for you no matter what, strive to be your best for him/her.  If both spouses strive to be their best self, think how much easier it will be to love each other in every moment.

8.  It’s the little things.

Many people mistakenly think of romance as these grand gestures.  But it is usually the little stuff we remember and cherish the most.  Say “I love you” often.  Say “thank you” often.  Give your spouse a tender kiss in an unanticipated moment.  Leave a note in their lunch box or on their car seat that says, “I am so grateful you are my husband (or wife).”  Compliment each other.  Surprise him/her with breakfast in bed.  There are hundreds of small gestures of love and romance that are sure to bring a smile to your spouse’s face.

9.  Always kiss goodbye and goodnight.

You’re running late for work, the kids are late for school, and you need to get gas because you drove your car on “E” all day yesterday.  Every instinct (or rather stress hormone) is telling you to run out of the house as fast as you can.  But a heartfelt “I love you, have a great day,” accompanied by a kiss goodbye takes all of 10 seconds and its rewards are infinite.  Remember, nothing is guaranteed and that kiss goodbye could be your last.  Don’t miss it.  You’ll regret it.  Always kiss goodnight as well – never go to bed angry.

10.  Be grateful.

While I do not recommend spending a significant portion of your day contemplating your own death or that of your spouse, it is good practice to remind yourself every once in a while how fragile and precious life really is.  It will help you to remain grateful for your spouse and not take him/her for granted.  It will also help you to make time for him, be a team player, not keep score, give her a break when she needs it, not be rigid, laugh, be your best for him, do those little romantic things for her, and remember to always kiss each other goodbye and goodnight.

Depression & Relationships

Depression can wreak havoc on a relationship.  A depressed person can seem a mere shadow of their former self, often displaying traits that are foreign to who they used to be.  A depressed person may withdraw, lose interest in life in general, lose interest in sex, lack joy, feel overwhelmed by the smallest of tasks, feel tired all the time, tend to focus on the negative and be very pessimistic, and struggle with feelings of worthlessness and despair.  This is not an easy person to live with.  It can be extremely frustrating and emotionally draining to live with a depressed person.  It can be hurtful and confusing when they isolate themselves, pull away, and reject your efforts to help.

The most important step a couple in this situation can take is to seek treatment.  It’s not the depression itself that leads to divorce or break-ups, but rather the consequence of not addressing the depression.  Couples therapy is a wonderful option for those who deal with this issue in their relationship.  The therapist may also want to compliment the couples therapy with some individual sessions for both the depressed and non-depressed partner in order to address their particular issues more in depth, but the couples therapy sessions will help to greatly reduce relationship stress, as well as lead to greater understanding between partners and, ultimately, a strengthening of their bond as they face and work through the illness together.

If your loved one is depressed, here are some tips on how best to cope with the situation:


2. Educate yourself about the illness.

This will help you to better understand your partner and what he/she is going through.

3. Offer support and encouragement – Be there for them.

4. Remember:  Depression is an illness.  It’s not something one can just “snap out of”.

5. Don’t attempt to rescue them.

While you may find yourself picking up the slack in certain areas like house cleaning from time to time, it’s too much to ask of yourself to do that in all areas of your depressed partner’s life and may lead to feelings of resentment and anger.  Again, this is why seeking treatment early is so important.

6. Don’t take things personally.

Depression is not rational.  While it is painful to be rejected, scorned, or ignored, it is important to remember it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the illness.

7. Communicate.

It is important that a couple dealing with depression communicates with each other in an honest and respectful way.  A couple’s therapist will help facilitate this process and teach the couple healthy communication skills.  The unspoken is ten times worse than the spoken, especially to a depressed person who will likely assume the worst.

8. Take time for yourself.

Living with a depressed person is very trying and can wear the non-depressed person down.  It is important to take time and re-charge your battery so you can be the positive force your partner needs.

9. Offer hope.

A depressed person may see the world in a very negative light.  Offer hope in whatever form they can accept it in the moment – the love for their children, their faith in a higher power, the beauty of nature – anything positive they can focus their mind on.  It is important to foster that seed.

10. Love them unconditionally.

Someone who is depressed may struggle with feelings of worthlessness.  They may not like who they’ve become and they often feel helpless to change.  They may feel unworthy of love. Mistakenly, they perceive the symptoms of their disease (the lack of energy, the seeming laziness, the lack of joy and enthusiasm, the helplessness) as deep character flaws.  One of the best things you can do for your depressed partner is to see them for who they really are, the person you fell in love with, the person behind the illness.  If you can give them that gift – if you can see that person even in the moments where their real self is most hidden by the depression – you will truly help them get back to their non-depressed selves in a way that only you can. As you see your partner’s true self you offer him/her a reflection, a mirror, in which they too can begin to see themselves as they truly are.  That is a wonderful gift only love can give.

In Part 1 of this blog, we touched on some of the more basic benefits of couples counseling, namely that it offers: 1) an objective and trained outside perspective into the couple’s issues and problems, and 2) a safe and supportive environment where couples and partners can be open and honest about their needs, feelings, and thoughts. Beyond that, couples counseling or marriage counseling will also help couples:

  1. Learn how to communicate better.  Couples will learn how to express their thoughts and feelings clearly and effectively, being assertive without being offensive.
  2. Learn how to be a better listener!  Couples will learn how to listen with respect and with an open mind.  In many instances, an individual within the couple unit will think they hear exactly what the other is saying, when in reality what they are hearing is distorted by their own assumptions or past arguments, resentments, and anger.  Becoming a better listener is the critical component of communication that will truly improve your relationship and your life.
  3. Learn to identify and reduce negative patterns they have developed.
  4. Learn how to respectfully disagree and how to resolve conflict in a healthy and productive manner.
  5. Identify and resolve past conflict (with the help, guidance, and mediation of their therapist) so they can stop arguing about the same issues over and over again.
  6. Rebuild the foundations of trust and honesty in the relationship.
  7. Develop a deeper understanding of their partner’s needs, as well as a deeper understanding of their own. With this new insight they will be able to validate and empathize with their partners feelings and meet them on an emotional level that goes beyond their spoken words.
  8. They will also learn that it is not realistic to expect that their needs will be met entirely through their couple relationship. It takes two healthy individuals to make a healthy and happy couple.
  9. Become more intimate – sexually and emotionally.
  10. If relevant, marriage counseling will help a couple learn how to agree on and implement unified parenting techniques and strategies.

In couples counseling, as with anything else in life, what you put into it is what you get out of it.  The couple’s therapist is not a miracle worker.  At the end of the day, it is up to each person within the couple unit to put in the work.  It is important that each of the partners own and work on their particular contribution to the problems at hand.  It is an exercise in futility to try to change anyone but oneself.

With the divorce rate as high as it is, it is surprising that less than 5% of divorcing couples seek marital counseling, according to renowned marriage and relationship expert Dr. John Gottman.  Most of us have at least witnessed a divorce – our parents went through it, our friends’ parents, our siblings, our own friends – and some of us have gone through one ourselves.  We are all well aware of the pain and heartache of divorce, especially if it involves children.  Divorce rips the two people’s lives apart and all the ties that bind them, often leaving each individual with regrets, feelings of failure, immense sadness because divorce is like a death – the death of the “us”, and, in many instances, a mistrust in marriage and relationships in general.  For children, it causes major upset in the balance of their lives, it tears their family apart, it can forever alter their perception of love and relationships and marriage, and they, too, are left with immense pain and sadness, often taking on fault for the failed relationship.  Given all this, it is a wonder why so few couples seek marriage counseling before opting for a divorce.  Many couples mistakenly believe that it’s no use, it won’t help – we don’t love each other anymore, we’re just too different now, there are irreconcilable differences, we don’t think we ever should have gotten married in the first place.  Also, there are many couples who believe it’s too late, which is similar to the first “it won’t help”, but with a slight difference because it implies it might have worked if the counseling was sought earlier on.

For those who think to themselves, “it’s too late,” there is a kernel of truth in that statement, in some cases at least.  The success rate of marriage counseling increases the earlier couples seek it.  Similar to the success rate of surviving cancer if it is detected and treated before it metastasizes to the rest of your body, diagnosing and treating an issue a couple is encountering before it takes over the whole relationship and does irrevocable damage, is important. However, a lower success rate does not mean no success rate, nothing is over until it’s over, and cancer does sometimes go into spontaneous remission.

For those who harbor the assumption “it won’t help” many would be surprised at how much it can.  Part 2 of this blog will delve deeper into the specific benefits of couples counseling, but at the core of it, seeing a marriage counselor will give a couple an outside perspective – an objective, trained outside perspective.  Often times couples that are having problems are so embroiled in their pain and anger, they’ve lost any ability to be objective.  Besides much needed objectivity, couples counseling also offers a safe space, free from the distractions and demands of everyday life, where couples can be open, honest, and real with each other.  In that kind of space, in that kind of environment, with that kind of perspective, some couples may indeed fall in love again, or come to realize that those “irreconcilable differences” were actually a series of miscommunications and negative patterns they had fallen into, or they may once again remember why it was and what it was that made them want to marry each other in the first place.  And maybe, if both partners give it an honest shot and truly try to make it work, it will prove to deepen their commitment to each other and make their relationship that much stronger.

Of course, there is always the chance it might not.  Sometimes, especially if therapy is sought late, the hurts run too deep for complete reconciliation.  And sometimes, people do get married for the wrong reasons and figure that out through the course of therapy.  And sometimes, one person or both people may be unwilling or unable to make the changes necessary to keep the marriage intact.  Even if this ends up being the case, it is still wise to seek couples counseling for the following reasons:  1) At the very least, it will help the divorce go smoother, often eliminating or alleviating some of the negative feelings that accompany divorce.  2) No one can ever know for sure if their marriage is salvageable until they try.  3) No one wants to live with regret.  If, at the end of the day, one can look oneself in the eye and honestly say, “I did all I could,” there will be no feelings of regret.  Sadness, yes; regret, no.  There is a clarity that comes to all situations with distance and time passed.  This clarity is what gave birth to the saying, “Hindsight is 20/20.”  It would be awful if, in that clarity, one were left with this thought: “If only, if only.”  If only is a terrible weight to carry.

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