Who Listens? Let It Be Your Coupledom

Telling Stories: Someone asked a psychiatrist ‘How can you listen to people talk about their problems all day.’ Comedic pause. Psychiatrist: ‘Who listens?’ Of course many of you may have anecdotes or evidence that validates that ironic response but one could insert husband and wife or wife and husband, in any particular order, and make a similar joke. Ironic, chronic and common. Who does listen, after a while, or over the years, to their partner’s stories? We all recall that first date where all you did was listen, fascinated, or told your story, feeling seen and “heard.” The loss of the art of storytelling, sharing stories, and hearing stories is the theme of an alarming and alerting article from Sunday’s New York Times by Henning Mankell, Swedish author of the Wallender Books. Mr. Mankell captures the vibrancy of the African world of storytelling, with his answer to the parable, ‘Why do we have two ears and only one tongue?’: ‘Probably so we have to listen twice as much as speak…In Africa, listening is a guiding principle.’ And I think, so should it be in The Coupledom.

Repetition or Meaning? How do we listen? For information or meaning? Or knowledge, which Mr. Mankell defines as the interpretation of information. In my work as a psychotherapist, I see my job primarily as listening for understanding, interpretation and translation: translating back to the couple or individual, translating one partner’s meaning to the other. Though probably not a perfect listener myself in everyday life, the power of listening, which my profession has taught me, makes Mr. Mankell’s article hit home. There is no irrelevance, no unworthy repetition in storytelling in my work. Patients often ask me, ‘Have I already told you this?’ My answer, ‘Tell me again. The interpretation may be different this time. Your need to tell it alone makes it worthy of being listened to.”

Linear, and Reductionist: The author points to the non-linear aspects of African storytelling, moving from past to present, back to past, without the restrictions of a set chronology, similar to the works of South American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who transformed Western thinking about the modern novel. In this view, telling a story already told is not repetition…the time is different now, the context, the moment. Weaving together past and present, what we may be communicating to our partners is non-linear. Emotion is non-linear. Present reactions have roots in our past, non-linear. And love is non-linear. Do we love more over time, less, more today, less tomorrow, back and forth, with more complexity? Do we see our partners in layers, colors and tones, via authentic listening? Or do we substitute a reductionist approach, our projections and beliefs based more on personal fears and long-held ideas, because we are not truly listening to the other’s stories? Instead our partner has become stereotyped, a series of unflattering adjectives, paper doll flat, no hues, restricted colorations, and shallow as a washboard. How does that happen? Someone is neither taking the time for nor learning the art of “listening.” Rodgers and Hammerstein got it: it is all about “Getting To Know You.”

Time and Loss: Yes, we all are bored hearing how fast-paced our culture has become, technology succeeding in both shrinking our world while simultaneously expanding it, where texting stands in for conversation, and tweeting is viewed as real news. I am a compulsive communicator and relish the ease and immediacy of connectedness but as one who loves stories, reading them, hearing them, and telling them, I grieve the loss or perhaps just the illusion of loss: of folks in rockers at dusk on porches telling stories of the days’ activities, memories of childhood, strange or funny incidents observed in work rooms, classrooms, barnyards, street corners, stores and subway stations, mindless of the passage of time. Stories told for the sheer purpose and process of the telling, the sharing, the schmoozing. Time allotted for long tales with seemingly useless “real” information, chit-chat, or anecdotal details of the days’ accumulation, is often viewed today as wasteful, non-productive, in the way of running a household, raising children and making a living. Ah, but here is the rub. If the storytelling partner is cut off from the telling of the story, then the knowledge of the other offered up in the tale is cut. Cut, blocked, unheard. “Time constraints” trump traveling somewhere else, together, with words, in the moment. Oddly, we are happy to go to the movies, or watch weeks and weeks of an HBO or Showtime series, but sitting and listening to a story of our partner’s making, low-budget as it is? Nope, no time for that.

Projection: Projection is another reductionist format where the listener doesn’t listen because they believe they know where their partner’s story is going…and often the direction, as projected by the listener, is not a good one. So they block the telling, or turn off the listening, rather than follow the storyline, curious and interested in its meaning for the storyteller. “I’ve heard this before.” Really? Before is a different time, era and perhaps meaning. Why is my partner telling this story now? A fishing or golf tale, a presentation gone wrong, a game played in childhood, a remembrance of an old teacher, a beloved counselor, a broken doll or a wounded puppy…simple sharing has huge merit which couples often miss. A tense and alienated Coupledom perceives each new tale as a potential threat, designed to support a position, rather than simply a communication: know me, or let me entertain you or express something about me to you. Not a weapon but an exchange. Maybe even a gift.

Simplification: The third great story-buster is simplification. This goes along with linear and reductionist thinking. And projection. That our partner’s stories or anecdotes are designed to fit into limited numbers of categories or files that support our belief system. Perhaps seen as designed to self-enhance, win a competition, a self-righteous justification, a put down, hot air, or a signal of betrayal or, worse yet, simply boring because it is out of our range of interest, rather than any number of other possibilities. My observation is that human beings have two conflicting tendencies when called upon to assess ambiguous data: one is to believe too much in the productions and conclusions of our minds, cutting off other possibilities as silly or manufactured; the other is to believe too little in the same and seek “reality” from the outside. There is a third possibility, to be curious, listen, and trust that real understanding and knowledge will emerge. Two ears, one tongue.

How To Listen and Why: Husband and wife meet over the kitchen counter at the end of a long day. Dinner is in the works; kids are doing or not doing homework, sitting at computers or playing video games. Parents’ eyes meet and greet. What next? What happens at the moment of re-entry when the day’s business brings you back together? Time, projection and simplification are busily influencing our awareness. “No time.” Every couple in trouble tells me there is just no time. To share the contents of their minds. To tell their stories. To deepen the knowledge of the other. To become better known to the other. No time. Really? Honestly, it doesn’t take that much time if it happens every single day, at some point, not blocked by a conviction that I know everything about him or her already or they never listen to me, why listen to them, or everything else is more important. No perfect moment available for storytelling and listening.

Listening Now: Really? Can you walk to the mailbox together, sharing a story instead of a shopping list? If tales, anecdotes, humorous observations, something read, an unexpected encounter, gossip, moments of hurt, disappointment, failure, success or celebration, are exchanged each day, before someone turns out the light, or flips the channels, while the other listens and learns, then The Coupledom accrues over time a patina, a deepening of color and hue, tone and depth, non-linear, ever evolving without that cheap trick of the mind which tells us that we already know all that we need to know about the other or that what is being said is irrelevant and has no merit. Bothersome. “I’ve heard that story before.” “You tell the same joke over and over.” “I have no idea or interest in his work.” “Why the heck is she telling me this stuff about her book club, her hair dresser’s boyfriend, the neighbor’s dog?” I am frankly appalled when couples tell me they have no idea what their spouse does at work. “He doesn’t like to talk about work.” Recently I asked someone whether their wife, who is in my field, had additional training after receiving her degree. “No idea.” No idea? Did she try to tell him, come home each evening and share anecdotes? Describe interesting cases, difficulty with a supervisor, a new intake, the interpretation of a wild dream? My hunch, you bet. No idea! You mean, no listening!

No Way To Love.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2011

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