When a partner says to you ‘You never listen to me’, is she talking about her relationship with you or is she subconsciously talking about her self-relationship. It appears to me this is an important question and will determine not only what action is needed (or not needed) on either the part of the giver or the receiver of the message, but also on the progress of the relationship between the couple. Even more crucially, the answer to the question can have critical consequences on the progress of each party’s self-reliance.
If the receiver hears the message as a judgement and a criticism, he is likely to respond defensively and the resultant ‘heat of the conflict’ will only add to the unhappy situation. Little exploration is needed to show that this personalising by the receiver is not the desirable route to go. Individuals seem more ready to recognise that the statement ‘you never listen to me’ is about the person making it and the wise thing to do is to return what has been said to the sender ‘What has brought you to say that?’ The likelihood is that you may get a quick retort ‘because you never listen.’ Now it can sometimes be the case that your partner ‘never listens’ but it is important not to confuse his issue with your issue ‘to be listened to.’ The question you need to ask yourself is ‘why do I put up with such non-listening?’ Is it because there is a deeper non-listening going on within myself? Surely if I was in a safe and secure place to consciously hold and express my wholeness, I would have communicated a very definite message from my core self to my partner that ‘I listen to myself and when not listened to by you, I will assert my position and take due action for myself if it continues.’
It seems to me that when the statement ‘you never listen to me’ is examined within the context of the self-relationship, all the responsibility lies with the sender of the message. Certainly, the sender can send a clear message about self and say ‘I’m requesting to be listened to when I speak.’ However, a request is not a demand or a command – these put the responsibility for action on the unmet need onto another. A request is an expression of what I do for myself and what I would like from another. When the other person is not in a place to respond to my request, I do not judge, complain, criticise or gossip about her. I know that her non-listening is a subconscious revelation of an aspect of her self-relationship and I feel compassion for my partner’s plight. However, compassion does not mean abandonment of self and, if following mature invitations to discuss the untenable situation, the person is not ready to address the situation, then I will follow through on the listening to myself and take action for myself on the upholding of my dignity.
Given the above it would appear that our responses to others are not about our relationships with them, but on aspects of the inner self-relationship that is requiring conscious examination. As long as I believe that my responses are about my relationship with another, my focus stays outside of myself and the inner path of self-reliance is not travelled.
A good question to pose is: if my responses to another’s behaviour is about my own inner relationship, what then is a relationship with another all about? In my opinion, a relationship with another is where each appoints the other the guardian of their solitude and of their ability to take responsibility for self. Such responsiveness shows belief in the other and supports their taking responsibility for self. In this environment of mutual support of each partner’s potential to be self-reliant, expressed needs are much more likely to be responded to. The key issue is that such mature responsiveness does not entail taking responsibility for another, but is a genuine choice on the part of the receiver of the request. Authenticity would mean being ready to be able to say ‘no’ to a request, but communicating the ‘no’ in a way that mirrors the inner world of the responder: for example, ‘Right now I’m not in a place to listen to what you are saying as I need to first look after some unmet needs of my own.’ When the person who initially made the request hears the ‘no’ as being about her partner’s inner self-relationship, she can acknowledge where he is at and repeat her request at another time. Both sender and receiver can now hold their relationship with one another and return comfortably and without threat to their own self-relationship. There are great grounds for feeling optimistic about the mature progress of this relationship.
The above reality can be practised in all other couple relationships – parent and child, friend and friend, teacher and pupil, employer and employee, manager and staff member, doctor and client and so on. It is a reality I will return to at times during the coming year because of the over-prevalence of lean-to-relationships and the under-prevalence of relationships where each person takes responsibility for self and supports that maturity in each other.
Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books including Myself, My Partner.