The One Proven Way to Feel Close to Your Partner Right Now
Why being a better listener helps you stay in love.
Posted Sep 24, 2019
Whatever challenges a couple is facing, there is one skill anyone can work on to greatly improve a relationship. That skill is listening.
Recent studies have linked attentive listening to better coping behaviors and higher relationship satisfaction in couples. This is really no surprise, as actively tuning in to someone makes that person feel cared about and known. And I would argue that being known by our partner is one of the most essential elements of being in love.
And yet, we are all, to varying degrees, failing at this simple task. Perhaps in today’s technological age, we are more used to dividing our attention than ever before. Many of us are rarely fully present. We may notice that no matter what’s going on in conversation, a beep from our phone somehow takes priority. A good question to ask ourselves is how often do we find ourselves saying, “Wait just a sec, I’m getting a call,” or, “Sorry, I just had to respond to a text”?
The next question to ask is: when we do set aside distractions, how well do we listen? Many of us think we’re listening when we talk with our partner, but we’re often simply waiting for our chance to speak or respond. In a sense, we are interacting with our own thoughts and responses, but we are not really relating to the other person and what they’re trying to communicate.
The good news is attentive listening is a skill we can practice and get better at, and it’s a powerful tool to feeling closer and more connected to our partner. Here are five ways to become a better listener.
One of the things we do a lot at the beginning of a relationship but that tends to trail off as we get to know someone better is asking questions. Yet, a person is always growing, changing, and has a lot going on inside that is worthy of our curiosity. When we stop showing interest, we lose a lively side of our relationship that brought us closer to the other person, and it can deaden their connection to us. As one recent study unsurprisingly found, asking questions makes people like us more.
Asking our partner about themselves is thus an easy way to connect both to the person and to our own feeling for them. A now-famous study by Arthur Aron found that asking a certain set of 36 questions can accelerate feelings of love and connection between two strangers. This has been broadened to be used as a tool to bring couples closer and strengthen friendships. In any relationship, we can cultivate asking questions that draw the person out or allow them to tell their story, and this is scientifically proven to strengthen the relationship.
When we do ask our partner to open up about themselves, we must also take time to hear the answer. A polite “how was your day?” while we’re simultaneously throwing a load of laundry in the wash or checking Instagram is not going to have much of an impact. Instead, we should carve out a time when we can set aside distractions to the best of our ability. Maybe put the phone on silent or set down the dish we were drying. We should be sure to make eye contact and physically position ourselves to show that we’re taking a break to connect. This communicates that we care about what they have to say and that they are a priority.
3. Tune in
Physically tuning in by sitting down, turning toward the person, and making eye contact are all important ways to make the person feel safe to open up. As they do, it’s important we pay attention to the words they use, their body language, and the intensity of their speech. It’s incredibly easy to get lost in our own heads, and of course, we’re going to have thoughts and observations when the other person is talking. Yet, it’s important to not interrupt and really allow the person to complete what they have to say. There is time to share what we have to say, but we should really aim to pay attention and hear out the other person the way we’d want to be heard.
When we do communicate, it’s valuable to reflect back what the other person is saying. It’s OK to inquire further about certain things they said and clarify when you don’t quite understand or follow. This should be a nonjudgmental process, and we shouldn’t try to change the way they look at things. We should do our best to show that our goal is to understand their thoughts, feelings, and experience separate from our own.
When we listen to our partner, it’s so easy to think up counterpoints, to try to solve their problems or explain to them why they’re wrong. We probably have some good points. However, we should make it an exercise to try to see through their eyes the way they’re feeling or experiencing something. It’s a gift to be able to remember that our partner’s experience is unique and totally different from ours. We may not be able to fully make sense of their experience, because we filter it through our own independent experience. The more we can seek to understand their point of view, the more we can empathize and feel for whatever they’re going through separate from us.
Although this process may sound one-sided, it is truly a practice that rewards both parties. Initially, these tips can be hard for some people to try, because they’re caught up in the blame game. It’s hard for them not to focus externally on what their partner does, has done, or will do in the future. They may often meet suggestions to listen with the phrase, “But he or she does this or that.” “But he never listens to me!” “But she will just use it as a chance to tell me everything I’m doing wrong.” In truth, being really listened to almost always softens the other person. It makes them feel warmly toward us, and safe, so they themselves don’t have to be on the attack or defend themselves. In this way, it encourages openness and reciprocation.
We can look at listening as a process of trying to know a person from the inside out. Most of us claim it is our goal to be close to and enjoy our partner, but we find it challenging to seek the patience and vulnerability within ourselves to really tune in, because we ourselves are looking for ways to cut off and seek distraction. It may seem like listening to our partner is setting our own thoughts and feelings aside, but what we’ll likely find is that by taking time to really hear out another person, we also connect more deeply to ourselves. When we inquire and feel for the other person, we open a door to do the same for ourselves. We relate rather than defend. We dig deeper rather than assume. By sitting back and listening, we create a path where thoughts and feelings can flow more easily between ourselves and our partner, and among those feelings are often a deeper, more genuine expression of love and affection.