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Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

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How to Listen to Your Spouse When You're Upset

How to Listen to Your Spouse When You're Upset

It is difficult to listen to our mate when we, or they, are upset. Setting aside our reaction in order to fully listen to our mate is a challenge, but necessary and critically important. 

The practice of setting aside one’s own reaction in order to fully attend to another has been called “bracketing” by Scott Peck in his book, The Road Less Traveled. This is a most difficult practice, but absolutely critical in order to fully attend to, empathize with and validate our mate. 

However, note that the task here is to “set aside” your beliefs and feelings temporarily so you can better attend to your mate. You must hold your own feelings and thoughts in one hand while the other hand reaches out in love to your mate with compassion, care and sensitivity. This does not mean obliterate your feelings, point of view or reaction. 

There is a time when it is critical to also validate your own experience. There comes a time when it is important for you to step back from the situation and reflect on your own feelings and perceptions. They likely have some validity and must also be appreciated. 

Scripture tells us to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Mark 12: 31) While I don’t believe this Scripture means we must solely love ourselves better—the focus is on loving others well—it makes sense that we cannot love others unless we have a healthy sense of self-acceptance. One of the ways of gaining and maintaining healthy self-acceptance is through the power of self-validation. 

When we consider the power of validation, let’s reflect for a few moments on what this entails. Validation is a way we communicate acceptance of ourselves and others. Validation is a way of accepting ourselves, and others’ thoughts, feelings and behaviors as understandable. Validating ourselves means then that we will recognize and accept our own thoughts, feelings and behaviors as understandable. This, of course, often takes work. 

Let’s explore what this means and how we can practice this in daily life: 

First, being present to ourselves. Much of the time, especially in the heat of a given moment, it is tempting to focus solely on a narrow aspect of what your mate is saying and how what they are saying impacts you. You may be tempted to slip into defensiveness or rebuttal, not allowing space to have your own authentic feelings. The antidote is to cultivate what I call “the third eye” so you are witnessing not only what your mate is saying, but also how what they are saying impacts you. You must create an “inner space” where you have your feelings while attending to your mate.      

Second, slow everything down. Awareness of your mate, and yourself, cannot occur when feeling overly frightened, agitated, threatened or otherwise dysregulated. Therefore, it is critical to make the agreement that you will slow things down, creating emotional space when either of you cannot be fully present. This may mean taking a brief time out of simply pausing to give witness to what your mate is saying and how you feel in that moment.

Third, seek to understand your mate and your own feelings and experience. This cannot be totally done simultaneously unless you do slow things down. If you need to take a time out to understand your own experience, make it clear that you will return quickly to be with them. Take the time out soon enough so that feelings are not overly ruffled and unruly.

Fourth, create a “holding space” for your feelings. As you intend to be fully present to your mate, reassure yourself that you will have a time and space to talk about your experience. Your mate may be able to be with you in that, perhaps not. Either way, you will spend time with yourself so you can validate your own experience. This is not an exercise in reinforcing you being right, but rather honoring your experience and knowing yourself in a deeper way.

Finally, after validating your mate’s experience, seek an opportunity to share your experience. Yes, your mate needs to be understood. Their perceptions and feelings are valid and deserve to be at least partially validated. Look for the kernel of truth in what they say. After reflecting an understanding of their experience, ask if they can be with your experience. If not, you will have at least validated your own experience which makes you more capable of sharing your needs in the future.  

Do you take time to attend to others, as well as yourself? Do you spend time recognizing your own feelings, honoring them? If you would like further help, we are here for you. Please send responses to me at and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on our website and learn about our Personal and Marriage Intensives as well as our newly formed Subscription Group for women struggling with emotional abuse. 

Photo courtesy: © Getty Images/fizkes

Publication date: March 13, 2017