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The Peril of “Active Listening” in Marriage

The Peril of “Active Listening” in Marriage

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The Peril of “Active Listening” in Marriage

According to some experts, the bedrock of successful marital relationships involves a form of interaction that has come to be label “active listening.” This style of communication involves partners’ paraphrasing each other’s statements of feelings, and then attempting to empathize with each other.

Imagine, for example, that during a counselling session, a wife explains that she is furious with her husband because he regularly gets drunk, comes home smelling of alcohol, and sits in front of the television late. According to the tenets of active listening, the husband would put his wife’s concerns into his own words and then try his very best to understand why she feels so angry with him. This intuitively pleasing technique is very popular and has given rise to the phrase “I hear what you are saying. …” But is active listening really essential to successful relationships, or is this yet another mind myth?

In the 1990s psychologist and world-renowned expert on marital stability, John Gottman and his colleagues at the University of Washington were eager to find out, so they conducted a lengthy and elaborate study. They recruited more than a hundred newlywed couples, invited them to the lab, and asked them to sit in front of a camera and chat for fifteen minutes about a topic of ongoing disagreement. The research team then examined every second of the footage, analysing each comment. Over the next six years, the experimenters periodically contacted the couples to find out if they were still together and, if so, how happy they were in their relationship.

To test the effectiveness of active listening, they looked at every instance when one person on the expressed any negative emotion or comment, such as “I am unhappy with your behaviour” or “I can’t stand the way you talk to my parents.” The team recorded how the partner responded, looking for the types of comments associated with active listening, such as paraphrases indicating understanding or empathy.

By comparing the frequency of such comments from the conversations of couples who had stayed together with those who had divorced and those who were in happy and unhappy relationships, the team could scientifically evaluate the power of active listening. Gottman and his team were surprised and shocked by their own findings. Instances of active listening were few and far between, and they didn’t predict whether a couple would be successful and happy.

According to the results of the study, active listening was unrelated to marital bliss. Amazed by this outcome, the team turned to another set of videotapes for a second opinion. In a previous study, they had followed a group of couples for thirteen years, and now they set about doing the same kind of analysis on those tapes. They found a similar pattern in the data, which suggested that even the most successful, long-term, and happy couples rarely engaged in anything that resembled active listening.

According to Gottman, trying to paraphrase and empathize with your partner when he or she is being critical is a bridge too far and requires a kind of “emotional gymnastics” that few can achieve. Although the team’s conclusions proved controversial, especially with many relationship counsellors who seemed wedded to the notion of active listening, other research also failed to provide evidence that active listening forms the cornerstone of a successful relationship.

So if listening to and responding to a partner’s comments is not the best way forward, what is? The Gottman study suggests that couples in long-term and happy heterosexual relationships tend to exhibit a very particular pattern in times of convict. The female usually raises a difficult issue, presents an analysis of the problem, and suggests some possible solutions. Males, who are able to accept some of these ideas, and therefore show a sense of power sharing with their partner, are far more likely to maintain a successful relationship.

In contrast, couples in which the males react by stonewalling, or even showing contempt, are especially likely to break up. Teaching couples to change the way they respond to each other when the going gets tough is possible, but time-consuming and difficult.

However, the good news is that there are several techniques that are surprisingly quick to learn and that can help people live happily ever after like:

  • Remind your partner (and yourself) that you appreciate them.
  • Say thank you for the little things.
  • Practice honesty, even when you're ashamed.
  • Take care of your appearance.
  • Foster relationships outside your marriage.
  • Watch your words and etc.

Contributed by:

Travis Lye Psychologist of Spectrum Of life Integrative Wellness Centre