Overcoming Five Obstacles

Obstacle 1. Intense Emotion

“Powerful emotion is linked to profound need”

Our relationship with our spouse is the place where we find comfort and emotional security, but also vulnerability. We often hear things differently than our spouses intended. When a wife says something like, “we need more space in this house,” the husband hears, “you’re a poor provider.” Or when a husband says he is going golfing, his wife hears “I would have more fun playing golf with my friends than spending time with you.”

Think of the emotional reaction when one partner fails to notice the other’s haircut. Vulnerability leads one to think the other doesn’t find her attractive. These aren’t rational thoughts; they are born out of the intense emotional connection to our spouses.

Obstacle 2. Individual Differences

“Opposites might attract, but they can also frustrate”

We don’t have to be alike to be good at communication in marriage. In fact, differences can be quite positive, since differences help us grow beyond our habits and routines and help us to become better people.

The differences can also be interpreted in the wrong ways. An extrovert might feel comfort from a spouse who is introverted and admires his social energy, but when his work demands them to attend social events, she is likely to be resistant to attend. He might interpret this difference in personality as lack of support in his career. With a little communication and self-sacrifice they could both reach an understanding.

Obstacle 3. Temptation to Change the Other

“[The temptation to change others] is a difficult temptation to combat. It would be easy if only your spouse would change. You know your need, and you know that your partner is not meeting it. . . No. It is not that simple. You are seeing things only through the lens of your own needs”

Again the issue here is not what one spouse says, but what the other hears. When one spouse in a marriage makes a logical conclusion about a change that his or her partner must make, the response is anything but logical. When we tell our spouses that they should change something, the reaction is almost always a feeling of being robbed of freedom.

Instead of telling your spouse something they should change, share with him or her your needs and feelings. Share the fears, frustrations, or past memories that cause you to feel the way you do.

Of course it is easier just to tell your spouse what you need him or her to change, but it is not nearly as productive as telling him or her your feelings.

Another tactic: focus on your listening skills, hearing the needs of your spouse. Make a list of the needs you think your spouse has of you (and ask your spouse to do the same).

Remember, you can only change yourself.

Obstacle 4. No Time

“It takes time to speak about feelings, experiences, and reflections, and it takes time to listen attentively”

We live in a corporate culture that values hard work and productivity. Anyone with young children knows the amount of time it takes to travel from sport practice to practice, game to game, and to and from the many other activities that fill a family’s schedule. Some spouses feel they have no time at all to spend alone together (and they are probably right!).

There is a simple solution for this. Make spending time alone together a priority.

Sacrifice something else to spend time alone. Establish a date night. Find a reliable babysitter (or three!) you can trust. Put the date night on the calendar and make a commitment not to make excuses to skip it.

Obstacle 5. Reverting to Pre-Marriage Roles

“The persons whom they thought they knew before marriage can appear to be quite a different individual afterward”

As they are building a family of their own, many spouses revert back to the roles they played in their original family home. An adventurous and bold person in college can revert back to being quiet and reserved like they were as a young person.

These changes can be confusing and stressful, leading one spouse to assign blame and judgment. Once again, feelings and needs have to be shared and listening has to be practiced to break through these moments of change. The feelings of defensiveness have to be sidelined in order to truly hear what the other is going through.

Article is excerpted from the book: Are You Really Listening? Keys to Successful Listening by Paul J. Donahue, PhD and Mary E. Siegel, PhD, Sorin Books, 2005.