We’ve all been there. I was there last night.
Our partner just isn’t hearing us. This is one of the most common challenges I hear from couples. We have been accused of something, and we have a great explanation in response. But our partner isn’t listening.
We say the words. We know we are right (or at least we think our answer is good). Our partner might look like they are listening, and maybe they’re even verbalized back what we’ve said. But the words just aren’t going anywhere. There’s a disconnect.
This can be very frustrating, and it is exceedingly common. It also greatly hurts the connection we have with our partner, because strong relationships are about sharing and working together. When our partner doesn’t hear us, everything starts to break down.
Emotional triggers play a big role.
The problem isn’t the words, it isn’t that we’re bad at communication. We also shouldn’t overly blame our partner, because in most cases they are working in good faith for us and the relationship. The issue is that we’ve landed on a hot-button issue that engages our partner’s emotional triggers. Once an emotional trigger has been pressed, words don’t matter so much. Emotions are in play, not facts and logic.
Couples fight about many things. The list of potential fight topics is endless, and it can include the laundry, the dishes, a poorly timed verbal response or a stray look. Rarely is the fight actually about these issues, however. Instead, these are proxy topics that set off a bigger concern that does matter to our partner.
While not cleaning the dishes might be the topic of the fight, the reason things have gotten out of hand is because the dishes really is a proxy for something important like us not valuing our partner or not being someone our partner can rely on.
In normal times the dishes might not really matter. Our partner might not care too much if a guest fails to wash the dishes, for instance. But when we fail to wash the dishes repeatedly, this action might trigger a strong emotional response in our partner because they care about us and what we do has implications. If feeling safe and supported is an important issue to our partner, not doing the dishes repeatedly might set off a strong, negative emotional response.
Most people only have a few big issues that serve as emotional triggers. If we set off one of these triggers, however, things get bad in a hurry. Our partner responds emotionally, we get defensive and don’t realize the underlying issue, and perhaps they proceed to set off one of our emotional triggers. A fight ensues. Or, if we’re really good, we avoid the bait but suffer through an unhappy partner.
Either way, our ideas can get lost in that situation. We can say the words, but our partner isn’t hearing it. Strong emotions have gotten in the way, and we’re likely not even talking about the real issue.
If your partner isn’t hearing you, chances are high that strong emotions and emotional triggers are playing a role. Address this emotional trigger and your message will get through much easier.
Here are three steps for addressing an emotional trigger and creating the space for better sharing—one that includes your partner hearing what you’re actually trying to say!
First, recognize what is really going on in the conversation: We’ve set off our partner, and now they’re frustrated, hurt or emotionally in a concerned place. Our partner isn’t bad, they aren’t stupid. In fact, maybe they’re seeing something we aren’t seeing. What is for certain is that they’re responding emotionally, and the conversation has tapped into something that’s very important to them.
Next, figure out the real issue. It isn’t the dishes, it isn’t coming home late from work or responding slowly to that chat message. The conversation is a proxy for some larger issue in your partner’s life, something fundamental to the human condition such as wanting to feel loved, wanting to feel appreciated, wanting to be on the same team, or wanting to feel safe.
These may not be our emotional triggers, and the dishes might not set us off. But some emotional trigger has been set off in our partner, and we need to figure out the real issue that is causing our partner’s emotional response. Then we can address this issue instead of tackling the proxy topic.
Finally, the third step is actually addressing the real issue and thereby calming down the emotional response in our partner. We won’t fix the issue if we talk about how always washing the dishes right after dinner is an unrealistic goal. We probably will have much better success if we tackle the real concern, which might be the sense from our partner that we’re unreliable and therefore won’t be able to work together with them long-term.
To do this, of course, we ourselves must not be defensive and responding from our own emotional triggers. We might have to apply this same technique to ourselves first if the issue has broken into a full-blown fight. Once we apply this to ourselves, though, we can start to also help our partner work through their emotional distress.
Hearing starts with being receptive to what’s being said. This receptivity is hard if we’re concerned and not emotionally balanced. So if you find that your partner is just not hearing you, think emotional triggers and work on dialing back the emotions through the steps I’ve mentioned above. You’ll be surprised how often this technique works.
For more on emotional triggers, watch this wonderful video I made with Gal Szekely, psychotherapist and co-founder of The Couples Center in San Francisco. We cover emotional triggers in more detail, as well as some other important topics such as how to maintain good chemistry in your relationship.
If you need help with this technique, also give me a shout out. I’m here to help, and I’d love to show you how you can improve the communication with your partner for a truly satisfying relationship.
Peter is founder of Kowalke Coaching. He also is founding director of the Philia Mission, a small charitable organization. Contact Peter.