Why Is Listening So Difficult for Couples?

The importance of emotional tone.

Posted Jun 16, 2020

Andrew Martin from Pixabay
Source: Andrew Martin from Pixabay

One of the most common complaints that I hear during couples’ counseling is one partner telling the other, "You’re not listening to me!" This is usually said with a tone of frustration or even anger since it tends to be a repetitive problem. The other person almost always objects, claiming “Of course I am!” and you can imagine how well that goes over.

The importance of active listening is well known and accepted. Most people think they are fairly good listeners, at least in their close relationships. In reality, most are listening only superficially. Often, they’re thinking, “What do I need to get from this?” Or,” Do I agree with these comments?” Or even, “When is s/he going to stop talking?!” When the speech is emotionally charged, as it so often is during a couples’ session, the listener may be thinking: “How am I going to defend myself from this?” Contrary to active listening, these are all examples of passive listening, or listening to respond.

The common mistakes in listening, as well as ways to practice the correct skills, have been outlined in a prior blog post. You may have tried doing all of the right things and avoiding the wrong behaviors, yet still been accused by your partner of “not really listening.” What makes attentive listening so difficult in a couple relationship? What are these partners missing about their communication problems?

There are obvious reasons that listening with attention can be a challenge, and these are true for all relationships including parents with their children, coworkers, or friends. Common problems that interfere with our attentiveness include being tired/stressed, being preoccupied with other issues, or being distracted by something more urgent, such as finding that bag of chips that isn’t where you left it. There’s also the well-known problem of short attention spans, which has been determined by a Microsoft study to be about 8 seconds for the average adult (Digital Information World, 2018/09). That represents a fall from a whopping 12-second attention span in the year 2000.

However, none of these reasons truly gets to the heart of the problem in couples’ communication. Unless you’re simply discussing what to have for dinner or whose turn it is to feed the dog, active listening can be far more difficult for couples’ conversations than in most other circumstances. I’d like to suggest an explanation which will sound very familiar to most readers. That is:

“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

In my experience doing couples' therapy, the key difference that makes couple conversations more challenging is emotional tone. Research in communication by Albert Mehrabian has supported the common-sense notion that a sizable part of our attention to a speaker is focused upon their tone. Although the work of Mehrabian has been widely criticized, the main conclusion of his research has held up over time. It was about the match or mismatch between words and tone. His conclusion was that “If words and tone don’t match, people will trust tone.” (Mehrabian, 1971).

Let’s apply that principle to the challenge of couples’ communication. How often are complaints presented in a calm and agreeable tone? In other words, how many couples actually practice the “soft start-up” of a potentially difficult conversation, as recommended by the renowned marriage therapist John Gottman

For example, instead of “Why the f*** did you blow $250 on a pair of freakin’ sunglasses?!”, a soft start-up might be “Since we’re saving for that trip together, I am concerned that you spent that much money on sunglasses.” Of course, these words might be said with an angry tone, or they may be said with a calm and sincere tone. If they are said in an angry tone, you will not really sound concerned, you will sound angry. There will be that obvious mismatch between words and tone, and your partner will most likely respond to the anger with a defensive comment. 

In addition to using the gentler words of a soft start-up, it is important to use a calm tone. Of course, this is easier said than done and it does take a lot of practice. The better response that you’ll get will reinforce the extra effort, as long as both partners are trying to respect the other’s concerns. And that brings me to my main conclusion about how to improve the chances of actually being heard by a partner.

In couples communication, both the speaker and the listener have important roles in the active listening process.

While the listener's role is to pay attention to the message, the speaker's role is to pay attention to the emotional tone of their comments. By doing that, the speaker has a much better chance of beginning a constructive conversation. The person with the complaint (speaker) will get a better outcome, whether the goal is to solve a problem together or simply feel understood and supported.


Gottman, John M., & Silver, Nan. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Harmony Publishers. 

Mehrabian, Albert (1971). Silent Messages. Wadsworth Publishing Co.