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Why (and How) to Be a Better Listener in Your Relationship

Research shows responsive listening builds intimacy. Here's how to do it.

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Feelings of intimacy and closeness can pull a relationship through hard times and help couples thrive when the relationship is good.

One way to build intimacy in your relationship is by sharing your thoughts and feelings with each other and then responding to those disclosures in a way that makes you both feel good. In relationship research, they call this being “responsive to your partner’s needs.” Being a responsive partner, and feeling like your partner is responsive to you, is really at the core of good communication and closeness. When you feel like your partner really gets you, you feel like nothing else matters.

How Can You Build Intimacy and Closeness with Your Partner?

The first step is being willing to disclose your thoughts and feelings to your partner. These disclosures don’t need to be about your relationship (although they can be). It’s more about keeping you and your partner in sync by sharing the thoughts that go through your mind throughout the day.

You might think that silly internet meme you saw online is not worth mentioning, but if you take the time to share it with your partner, you are creating a link that ties you two together. If you don’t bother to tell your partner about your day, good and bad, big and small, you and your partner will begin to live separate lives and this will breed distance rather than intimacy.

And it is just as important that you make sure you are open to listening when your partner wants to share their thoughts and feelings with you. Don’t sigh or look at your phone or say you don’t have time. Instead, encourage their disclosures as a way to support your partner and get closer to them. Their disclosures might be something small and silly to you, but they might be really meaningful to them.

You probably don’t have endless hours to sit and chat about your days and there may be times when you feel too busy to take a few moments for idle chat. But it’s probably the most important to take some time to do this when life is getting in the way. If you only have a little time together, that is all the more reason to build intimacy whenever and wherever you can.

Ideally, this happens in person, but if you spend most of your day apart, you can build intimacy throughout the day by sharing your thoughts and feelings over the phone, text, email, or online chat. See a news article that made you think? Send it to your partner and tell them why you liked (or didn’t like) it. Hear a song you liked on the radio on your way to work? Email a link of it to your partner when you have a minute and ask what they think of it. Have a frustrating conversation with your boss? Step outside for a minute and call your partner to vent.

The second step to building intimacy is to be a responsive listener when your partner tells you their thoughts and feelings. What exactly does it mean to be a responsive listener? Part of it is that whole “don’t sigh and say you don’t have time” piece. Express interest in your partner and be engaged. Put your phone away and show you are truly listening. Then be understanding, validating, and caring.

1. Be understanding.

The goal: This is really about seeking understanding. You need to make sure you understand what your partner is trying to say.

How to do it: Clarify what your partner is saying by asking them what they said or repeating back to your partner what you think they said. You can do this with phrases such as, “So what you are saying is…,” “Can I make sure I understand?” and “Can you say that again?”

2. Be validating.

The goal: This is really about making sure your partner feels that you not only get what they are saying but why they are saying it. You need to make sure your partner knows that you really get who they are and why they think the way they do and that you respect and value them.

How to do it: Let your partner know that you “get” them with phrases like “I can see why that would be important to you,” “I understand why you did that,” “I can see why you’d be really happy about that,” or “That must have made you really [insert emotion].” You can also express agreement with phrases such as, “I’d feel that way too” or “I’d do the same thing.”

3. Be caring.

The goal: This is about letting your partner know they are loved and supported and that you are there for them.

How to do it: Be affectionate in your behavior and words (kiss, hug, say “I love you”). Let your partner know you are in it together. “This matters to me too,” “This is important for both of us,” “We’ll figure it out together.” If your partner is talking about something negative, express support (“I’m here for you,” “Let me know how I can help”). If your partner is talking about something positive, express excitement and encouragement (“That’s great! Let’s celebrate!”).

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Reis, H. T., Clark, M. S., & Holmes, J. G. (2004). Perceived partner responsiveness as an organizing construct in the study of intimacy and closeness. Handbook of closeness and intimacy, 201–225.

Laurenceau, J. P., Barrett, L. F., & Rovine, M. J. (2005). The interpersonal process model of intimacy in marriage: a daily-diary and multilevel modeling approach. Journal of Family Psychology, 19, 314-323.

Reis, H. T., & Gable, S. L. (2015). Responsiveness. Current Opinion in Psychology, 1, 67-71.

More from Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D.
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