To Keep Your Marriage Strong, Learn How To Listen Well

By Greg Smalley
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Active listening is important when you're talking to your spouse. Here's how to focus on your spouse's feelings and deepen your relationship.

I was cooking a meal with my wife, Erin. Once the chicken was on a platter, I put the skillet and glass lid in the sink.

“Make sure that you don’t run cold water over the lid,” Erin shouted from across the kitchen.

I’m not an idiot; I know how to wash dishes, I thought, as I ran cold water over the lid.

Blam! The lid exploded. Glass flew everywhere.

I looked at Erin. “I don’t think you’re supposed to use cold water,” I said sheepishly.

Learn to listen well

Most of us want our husband or wife to pay attention to what we say, but I suspect that many of us are not always the most attentive ourselves. To keep from pouring cold water on our relationship, we first need to learn how to listen well. This is especially true when discussing deeper matters of the heart. Let me give you several pointers about how to actively listen:

  • Turn toward your spouse and look him or her in the eyes.
  • Resist distractions, such as your phone or the television.
  • Pay attention to your spouse’s nonverbal cues and body language.
  • Don’t think about rebuttals or whether you agree.
  • Let your husband or wife finish talking. And, when it’s appropriate, repeat what you hear your spouse saying for clarification.
  • Pay special attention to your spouse’s feelings.

Later that evening, Erin and I were revisiting the moment.

“Glass went everywhere!” I said. “I could have been seriously injured.”

“Exactly,” Erin said. “That’s why I told you not to use cold water.”

Feeling the emotional energy intensifying, I tried to calm the situation: “Don’t worry. I’ll buy you a new glass lid.”

“You’re missing the point of my frustration,” Erin said. “I don’t care about the lid. I felt disregarded.”

Every part of me wanted to defend myself. Instead, I leaned into empathy.

“You’re right,” I said.

“Thank you,” Erin said. And then she added, “To make up for it, you can buy me a new Alessi cooking set. It’s only $4,500.”

We ended up having a nice conversation that night. Holding Erin’s hand as we talked created a special connection I was deeply grateful for.

I’m also grateful that Erin forgot about the Alessi set.

© 2019 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. This article article was adapted from Greg Smalley’s Fight Your Way to a Better Marriage (Howard, 2013). Used with permission. This article first appeared in the June/July 2019 issue of Focus on the Family magazine and was originally titled “Cold Water and Heated Conversations.” If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.

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About the Author

Greg Smalley

Dr. Greg Smalley serves as the Vice President of Marriage at Focus on the Family. In this role, he develops and oversees initiatives that prepare individuals for marriage, strengthen and nurture existing marriages and help couples in marital crises. Prior to joining Focus, Smalley worked for the Center for Relationship Enrichment at John Brown University and as President of the …

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