I want to become a better man

I'm having relationship problems and I want to fix them to make things right before I lose her. How can I learn how to listen and get myself together?

What an important question, and the fact that you're asking it is a big step in the right direction. To answer in detail would require having quite a bit more information about what "relationship problems" have occurred  that woke you up to the fact that you're not listening as well as you could and that you're running the risk of losing her.

Given that I don't have all that information, I'll offer one simple suggestion. Your girlfriend is the expert on what she needs and wants in relationship. You could simply say to her that you know you still have a lot to learn about how to have a good relationship and you realize you're not yet understanding what she needs and you really want to. Then take a deep breath, settle down, and listen. Don't argue, don't interrupt, don't judge... listen. Let her know what you understand and that you're open to hearing more, learning more if you're not quite getting it yet... and then listen some more. Be present and curious about this person you love dearly and don't want to lose. This is the first step toward intimacy.

The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide. If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.
Robin Landwehr, DBH, LPCC, NCC
Robin Landwehr, DBH, LPCC, NCC
Mental Health in a Primary Care Setting

Hello, and thank you for your question. First, I want to say that it is great that you are are willing to admit that you share some responsibility in some of the relationship problems you are having. This isn't always easy to do, but it sure is important if you want to see improvement.

It does sound cliche, but communication really is the bedrock of relationships. And not just intimate partner relationships, but really any relationship that is significant to us. It sounds like you are saying that you have a difficult time really listening to what your partner is telling you and then responding in a way that is helpful. I want to tell you that you are not alone. Good communication skills are not really something you are born with, we actually have to learn them. The good news is that there is great information available to help you do that.

Ultimately, some people must seek professional help through couple's counseling in order to get help with this process. This is because some of the hurt and anger could be at such a level already that you may need help setting boundaries, creating a plan, learning new skills, and staying on track. If that is not something you can afford or can do right now, here are a few suggestions that may help.

Personally, I am big fan of Dr. John Gottman. He is an expert in relationships and wrote a really great, easy-to-read book called The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Dr. Gottman discusses the kind of communication that healthy couples seem to have, which can be helpful and worth trying. You can buy Dr. Gottman's book on Amazon for under $9. It's a good deal.

There are a variety of websites that have good information that may help you build your communication. Here is one that I found that has a few good tips.

http://www.helpguide.org/articles/relationships/effective-communication.htm

You can try them and see if they are helpful.

***It is important to remember that like all new skills, communication requires practice and we surely fail several times before we start getting good at it. If you were ever a pitcher in baseball, then you know you have to throw thousands of pitches before you really start hitting your strike zone consistently. Allow yourself to make mistakes, own them, and start again.

I hope these suggestions help, and good luck.

Robin Landwehr, DBH, LPCC

The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide. If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.
Reid Stell
Reid Stell
Reid Stell Counseling

The best tool for becoming a better listener that I know of is called Imago Dialogue. It consists of 3 steps:

1. Mirroring what she says (without judging, commenting, refuting, defending, arguing, or scoffing--just listening, no matter the content) and repeating it back, word-for-word. Continue to ask if she has more to add until she doesn't.

2. Validating. You tell her you you understanding why she feels this way. (If you don't understand, then find a way.) You can also say, "That makes sense" or "I hear you" or "I get that."

3. Empathizing. Tell her how you think she must feel about what she's telling you. Your job is to try and feel what it feels like to be her.

This is a very different way of communicating than we're used to. My guess is that the arguments, discussions, and debates you've had with her have been counterproductive because you're both trying to win. With Imago Dialogue, you both win. She gets to be heard and you get to hear for a change.

At the end of the exercise, switch roles. For more info: http://imagorelationships.org/pub/about-imago-therapy/imago-dialogue-101/

The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide. If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.

Thanks for your question. Becoming a good listener is an essential piece in being a better communicator. Being an effective communicator will almost always improve the quality of your relationships. 

What stands in your way of listening to her? Do you find yourself becoming defensive when she brings up issues? Do you often find yourself thinking of what you want to say next? Do you take her words personally, preventing you from having the ability to problem solve?

Here are some tips that may help you with being a better listener:

1. Concentrate on what you are hearing, not on what you will say next.

2. Ask questions if you need clarification or don't understand.

3. Summarize what you're hearing after every couple of minutes to make sure that you're not missing anything.

4. Ask your partner what she needs from you. Is she expecting advice or does she simply need to vent?

5. Keep eye contact and avoid using non-verbal cues that demonstrate defensiveness or irritation such as eye rolling or crossing your arms.

6. Remember that it's okay to disagree and, if this is the case, then decide as a team, how you want to move forward.

I hope this helps. Good luck to you!

The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide. If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.
Tamara Powell
Tamara Powell
Anything But Ordinary!

I love that you are so thoughtful and proactive about this!  If only every client came in as solution focused as you, my job would be so much easier.

I would second Robin's suggestion of reading ANYTHING by Gottmann. He's fantastic. 

Other favorites of mine are:

Getting Together and Staying Together: Solving the Mystery of Marriage” by Dr. William & Carleen Glasser

      Eight Lessons for a Happier Marriage” by Dr. William & Carleen Glasser

      Hold Me Tight” by Dr. Sue Johnson

      Divorce Busting: A Step-By-Step Approach to Making Your Marriage Loving Again” by Michele Weiner-Davis, M.S.W.

      The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman

      The Flight from Intimacy: Healing Your Relationship of Counter-Dependency – the Other Side of Co-Dependency” by Drs. Janae & Barry Weinhold

      I'll also add to Miriam's assertion that your partner is the expert on her. You can help things along by becoming a better expert on you as well.

      What is it that you are craving and likely trying to get your need met in potentially unhelpful ways from your girlfriend or in ways she doesn't understand or vibe with

      If you can better explain your own needs while trying to understand hers, you all have a recipe for great success! When both partners seek to serve one another and stay curious about each other in the process, intimacy abounds!

      Best of luck my friend!

      And if you get stuck, of course seeking help from a professional is always a great idea too. ;)

      The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide. If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.
      Lauren Ostrowski, MA, LPC, NCC, DCC, CCTP
      Lauren Ostrowski, MA, LPC, NCC, DCC, CCTP
      I tailor my therapeutic approach to each client's strengths and goals

      The first step for making this sort of change is being motivated to change and it sounds like you have that, so you are already on the right track.

      As far as learning how to listen, try some of these steps:

      • Ask whether a certain time is a good time for your girlfriend to have an important conversation
      • If she has a subject that she would like to discuss, consider listening to her as an investigative reporter and asking questions that help you to gain more understanding of her experience. These questions usually begin with words like who, what, where, when. Questions starting with the word why can sometimes make people very uncomfortable because they may not explicitly know why they are asking for something or feeling a certain way. You can try communicating this way for just five minutes or so on until you feel as though you can restate what your girlfriend is saying and have her agree that you are recapturing the essence of what she is trying to communicate
      • Then you can switch so she is listening to you trying to understand your experience. You could also start by talking about something that is important to you.
      • Remember that stating that you follow or hear something that she is saying doesn't mean that you agree
      • Also, try sticking to one subject at a time. It's difficult to really understand one topic if you are on to the next within just a minute or two
      • Try to use the word want or wish instead of need. Saying that you need something (or if your girlfriend would say that) that is not a need for safety or something like that can make whatever you are asking for sound like an obligation. That takes away from that whole motivation to change from inside the partner who is agreeing to change or try to change

      Something else to try would be using some sort of timeout. Consider this:

      • Discuss the idea of using timeout before you actually need it and before the discussion starts. Timeout is a way to give each of you a way to calm down for five, 10, 15 minutes, or maybe even an hour. When there are a lot of emotions happening, each person gets wrapped up in protecting themselves from the emotions they are feeling and can lose track of what is actually going on in the conversation as compared to what they are perceiving.
      • When using timeout, say to your girlfriend (or she can say to you) "I need an hour before we can go back to this." Then actually come back to the discussion.
      • Some people are very afraid to use this technique because in the past not talking about something right away meant that it never was returned to and was never resolved in any way. This is why the agreement is important before you need it.

      While it may be helpful to ask your girlfriend what it is she may want from you, it is you that would be in charge of deciding whether you want to make that change and putting it into practice.

      Try to remember that part of being in a couple is holding onto your own wants, wishes, and desires while recognizing those of your partner.

      As one final idea, consider spending about 15 minutes a week together where you are not problem-solving about anything, just connecting with one another.

      I encourage you to see a therapist who specializes in couples if you would like some more specific ideas for what is happening within each of you and between you.

      Best wishes!

      The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide. If you are currently feeling suicidal, as if you want to hurt or kill yourself or someone else, or are in crisis, call 800-273-8255 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week), call 911, or proceed to your local emergency room.
      Sherry Katz, LCSW
      Sherry Katz, LCSW
      Couples and Family Therapist, LCSW

      I'm glad to read about your willingness to develop new ways to invest yourself with your partner.

      The easier way to fix a relationship is when both people are helped to recognize the ways the couple dynamic falls short of what each person would like.

      Couples therapy is exactly this.

      Still, relationships can change if one person changes since changing one part of a system will change the system itself.

      Besides starting to work with a therapist on what you can do differently, reflect within yourself on the situations when problems arise between the two of you.

      See if you can figure out what you wanted and what you partner wanted in that particular moment. 

      Was one of you trying to help the other and the person felt insulted by the suggestion of needing help?

      This is only an example of how intentions are misread or not welcome by one partner from the other.

      Also keep in mind there is a limit to everyone's flexibility.

      Reflecting and self-awareness are the first step.

      The second step is to know when you've reached the end of possibilities to change yourself and not be accepted for who you are.

      This raises the question of whether the two of you are far apart in similarities in order to be happy together.

      Good luck in enjoying the changes you will try to make!

      The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide. If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.

      Hard to say a whole lot without knowing more. However, if you focus your attention on her, what she's saying, what she's feeling instead of trying to make yourself heard and understood first, that's often a good step. Also, work on building win-win agreements with her, and follow through on them. 

      Those are the areas I see men fall short on most often. Hope that helps!

      The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide. If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.

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