What to do if you have a partner who doesn’t listen

It starts with defining what 'listening' means to you. .
It starts with defining what 'listening' means to you. . Prasit photo

Communication is the cornerstone of any successful relationship. But if your partner doesn’t listen to you — or at least, that’s how you perceive it — serious problems can arise.

“It’s not about a debate; it’s about understanding the feelings that are activated by the conversation, or lack of conversation, that’s going on,” says Dr. Doug Saunders, a clinical psychologist, couples therapist and founder of Clear Path Solutions in Toronto.

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Oftentimes, your partner’s seeming unwillingness to listen is part of a larger issue — one that could very well have nothing to do with you.

“There’s probably some degree of your partner not listening to you if that’s how you perceive it, but the reasons may not have anything to do with you,” Saunders says. “They could be carrying around feelings related to something else entirely.”

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The only way to get to the root of the issue is to discuss it.

Talk it out and define ‘listening’

There are ways to indicate to your partner that you’re listening to what they’re saying.

“If someone is accusing you of not listening, there could be a breakdown in what listening means to each of you,” says Amber Mckenzie, a marital and family psychologist at CBT Associates in Toronto. “When we get to a place where we’re saying, ‘Forget it, you won’t listen to me,’ that’s a sign that our feelings have been hurt. You need to figure out what’s getting in the way of your communication.”

Being present, and displaying the actions of a person who is present, will certainly help. In other words, put down your phone, turn off the television and give your partner your full attention. Both members of the couple need to be accessible, responsive and engaged.

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You can also be explicit with your partner about what “listening” looks like to you, whether it’s eye contact or some other physical sign.

“Define what it looks like and what you want,” Mckenzie says.

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Don’t jump to conclusions

It’s a mistake — and dangerous — to chalk up his or her failure to listen to a character flaw.

“This is what happens when couples are in distress; they start to blame each other in generic ways,” Saunders says. “When in fact, what those feelings are and where they come from, is your feeling of being shut out by the person who’s most important to you.”

There’s a possibility that your partner is dealing with issues outside of your relationship, which could be contributing to their perceived lack of attention. Saunders says to try to understand what’s at the root of your partner’s behaviour before assuming they don’t care about your needs or emotions.

“There’s a part of the brain that lights up and releases the feel-good chemical oxytocin when we feel connected to a person in an intimate way, but when that emotional attachment appears to be fraying, the little friction points in your relationship can seem much more significant,” he says.

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Keep that in mind before jumping to conclusions or attacking your partner’s character.

Look at your own behaviour

“It’s easy to point the finger at your partner and what you believe they’re doing wrong, but you need to look at yourself too,” Mckenzie says. “What pattern are you stuck in? What can you do differently to get the reaction you want?”

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Consider how you address your partner, whether it’s with anger or contempt or reprimand, and your reaction when you perceive their lack of attention. Minor shifts like that can make all the difference and help your partner to understand how important their participation and attentiveness is to you.