Why can't I listen to my wife?
May 14, 2005 6:23 PM   Subscribe

Why can't I ever listen to my wife?

My relationship with my wife is becoming rocky because, quite honestly, I don't listen to her. I forget major things that she's told me (eg. that she needs to go somewhere on a certain day, or that she has a certain day off work, or that she would like to go to the movies, or that she has an appointment I have to take her to - we only have one car) and go about my own merry business - quite frankly, sometimes I never hear these things to start with, but I have no doubt that she's told me. I just don't hear.

Naturally, she interprets this as meaning that I don't care about her - that all the other things I have going on in my head, all the other plans I make in my life, trump her needs. In fact I do care, and when I miss something she's told me or forget to ask her about something so we can get our plans straight, it hurts me a hell of a lot. The problem is, often I just assume things rather than actually asking her what she wants.

This is all happening subconsciously, so how do I fix it? I'm not aware that I'm not listening, so how can I change? How can I stop myself making assumptions, and actually communicate? Any ideas how I can make sure my wife is the #1 priority in my life?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (32 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Don't continue doing other things while she's telling you things of importance. Fill her in on this situation, then make a point of saying "Do I need to remember this?" when she starts telling you something. If so, stop whatever you're doing, look at her, and her only, and intently listen to whatever she's telling you. Step one, however, is sharing the problem.
posted by wackybrit at 6:41 PM on May 14, 2005

If you *do* listen to and remember things that other people tell you (boss, friends, colleagues), then it's probably safe to assume that your forgetting is what we call motivated forgetting - i.e., that you are actively refusing to listen and forgetting important things for a reason.

If this is true, you should sort out what the reason is - you could do this with the help of a therapist. It's probably possible to do it on your own, but it's not easy. Being on the outside, my first hunch would be that there's a control thing going on? Maybe hostility? I dunno - examine your behavior and the payoffs and maybe that'll give you a clue.
posted by jasper411 at 6:50 PM on May 14, 2005

I'll second what jasper411 just said. At some level you are discounting her and this is how its coming out. I have no doubt you love her but thats not the same as respecting her and respecting that when she says something it is important.

Why you feel this way I can only guess but one reason may be that although you care for her you also feel that she is maybe less intelligent than you or less qualified to offer opinions? You need to examine your relationship with your wife, not the lover part, but the friend part.
posted by vacapinta at 6:57 PM on May 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

My father often did this. I really think it was because he was so focused on organizing everything that he worked out of his (generally outdated) ideas of what we wanted or needed rather than paying attention to what we were actually telling him.

For example, when he was in grade school, my brother used to hate waiting in lines for restaurants. Now, he's fine with it. But my Mr-Fix-It Dad still refuses to go anyplace there's going to be a wait when my brother's home, even though my brother has said time and time again that he's fine with it. My father simply doesn't hear us discussing any restaurant options that include lines, because as soon as he thinks "There'll be a line" he tunes us out because "he knows better."

Not sure if this is your problem, but it might be worth consciously dropping any pre-conceived notions of what your wife wants or needs or is concerned about so that you're forced to listen to what she's actually saying. In other words, you may hear her start to tell you about something she's planning, you just start assuming that she's talking about something you already know about, and so you stop listening.

So, stop assuming that you know what she's talking about.

If it's just pure scatterbrained-ness: I had good luck curing something similar with a roommate by getting him more involved in the planning process. Rather than just saying, "We need to leave here at 6:30 in order to get there at 7," I'd say, "What time do you think we need to leave tonight?" (generally followed by a number of leading questions, like "Are you sure 6:45 is going to work? The subway is often slow on Sundays," to get him to arrive at the answer I actually wanted). Maybe your wife could try something like that, so that you're actually participating in the planning and therefore more likely to remember?
posted by occhiblu at 7:12 PM on May 14, 2005 [2 favorites]

There may be something big going on here that you need to deal with, as previously suggested. But on a more mundane level, write stuff down. When your wife is talking to you, stop multi-tasking and focus on her 100%. Get your brain involved in her plans. When she tries to schedule something, write it down in your calendar, PDA, or whatever. Read it back to her to make sure you got it right. Ask her to help you by telling you to grab your calendar before she starts planning anything. You're a stand-up guy for wanting to do something about this - good luck!
posted by Quietgal at 7:45 PM on May 14, 2005

I suggest you get yourself a copy of Mel Levine's book "A Mind at a Time." Different people have different skills and weaknesses in their interactions with the world. Your "inability" to listen may be just what your wife suspects, but may also be something over which you have little control.
posted by caddis at 7:45 PM on May 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

Sounds like you guys need a big calendar to hang in the kitchen. With a pen. On a string. ;-P
posted by mischief at 8:00 PM on May 14, 2005

This may be father out there than you want, but a lot of the point of Buddhist-style meditation is to free your mind from living in the future and actually pay attention to the present -- that is, to make you stop interacting based on what you think needs to happen and instead react to what's actually happening.

If you can set aside 10-20 minutes a day to just sit quiety, and clear your mind, it may be something to consider. Wherever You Go, There You Are has some good beginner advice for both meditation and general everyday mindfulness.
posted by occhiblu at 8:25 PM on May 14, 2005

This happened to me to. Constant fights about it. We had twins, and it got worse.

Finally, I realized that my duty was to my marriage, and to fullfill that duty, I had to love the job of being a husband. I don't mean to say it's a "job", but that we all have our roles, and it's important to know you're taking care of your part, and with the right attitude. Much of my "not listening" was based on subtle anger on my part for working hard every day, providing for my family, and still being told it wasn't enough.

I had an epiphany, and knuckled up, and put aside all of my petty desires to be "acknowledged". I put them on the back burner, and spent a while thinking only about being a good husband.

A friend said at the time "A little pretending goes a long way". I expect some flak about that statement, but it's really true. I had a year where I would wake up at 5 am, realizing we were out of diapers, and gleefully drove to the store to get them before the kids woke up. After about a year, I was happy, I felt fullfilled (or is it fulfilled?) and knew that I was doing right by my marriage.

I looked up after that year, and realized I hadn't been really angry in that whole time. Not even while parking in San Francisco (!)

I must say, what I went through was nothing short of a real spiritual awakening (make fun here). I've applied what I learned during that time to many other situations since, all to my benefit.
posted by asavage at 8:29 PM on May 14, 2005 [171 favorites]

Wow, asavage. It's rare to hear something positive like that. You obviously have some integrity and a sense of responsibility. Good man.
posted by codeofconduct at 9:42 PM on May 14, 2005

I'm going to have to echo codeofconduct and commend asavage. Taking responsibility not only of yourself but of your family, taking it upon yourself to seize full control of the situation and willfully change your perspective of it and embrace what you have learned even if it means admitting your initial stand may have been wrong shows you as a man of character. You are a rare and valued breed, my friend. Good on you.

anon, you may have learned to tune your wife out in the same way you have to do to succeed in the Click the Colour game. You have to unlearn the tuning out, I think. In fact, you need to unlearn a great many things because to assume is to take shortcuts into meanings. Instad of digesting what the other person really means, you're superimposing your own set of beliefs and assumptions. It defeats the purpose of talking. Try harder to listen. Be there, in the moment, with her, when you hear her voice or see her mouth moving. What is language but a tool? What is the point of her talking if you're not listening? It's like talking to a wall, as you can imagine. You're not a wall, you're a person. More to the point, so is she. As one other commenter said, respect is key. If you have to assume anything, assume that everything you're hearing is important.

Use tricks of memorization to remember things. The first step is usually to pay full attention. The next is understanding and comprehension. Then try to repeat or paraphrase what you have heard and understood. A good way to show you're listening, ask, "Let me see if I got this: (repeat repeat repeat)" or " (paraphrase paraphrase) ? Gotcha." Then, to actually remember a plan or a date, mark it in a calendar, an organizer, a slip of paper, anything. Sometimes seeing the information helps you remember it more.

Also, it bears repeating: don't assume. Ask. If something is unclear, ask. If you would like to call into question the importance of a particular thing, ask. At the very least, questions are usually a good sign that someone is trying to understand, or has at least been half-listening. :)
posted by Lush at 10:45 PM on May 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

At the risk of getting rocks thrown at me by the anti-medication crowd, perhaps you need to get checked out for adult-onset attention deficit disorder.

It probably wouldn't be a stretch to assume that your relationship with your wife is the only one in which verbal communication plays a primary role. Many people communicate with their bosses and co-workers by e-mail, so the electronic environment makes it difficult to "forget" tasks and impossible to "not listen."

IM and e-mail also plays a key role in relationships with friends and family, and again, electronic communication clouds a lot of the problems inherent in social interaction.

I'd mention this to a competent psychiatrist, and who knows - you might benefit from Ritalin, or at least some talk therapy.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 10:52 PM on May 14, 2005

Yes, wow, asavage. I loved your story. From now on I will smile when I go out to buy diapers.
posted by LadyBonita at 11:00 PM on May 14, 2005

Maybe you're just not good at processing auditory information. Check out VARK and find out. You might be a visual kind of guy and if your wife tells you something while you're watching TV, then the information is just not going to get to you. If you're a highly kinesthetic learner, then you might find that the best way to get information into your head is to write it down yourself.

Also, a calendar on the fridge (or your computer) can't hurt any.
posted by stefanie at 12:29 AM on May 15, 2005 [1 favorite]

I tune out my husband on days when I have something that my mind is working on. Sometimes it's that I come home on autopilot and my brain is busy processing; other times, I'm paying attention well until some word or other trigger sets my mind off on a tangent. If I catch it, I just say, "Sorry, I just realized I stopped listening around ____..." and he'll repeat it. Other times I let him know right away that I'm distracted and that I need a few hours till I can helpfully discuss and retain any sort of planning details. Maybe for us it's less complicated because "hurt" doesn't seem to come into it -- there are days when he's mentally in his own world too, so we both understand. The other helpful aspect of talking about the tuning-out directly as it's happening is that you can come to recognize each other's facial expressions (or other giveaway behavior) when it's happening. My husband has gotten good at noticing when I start drifting and will gently nudge me back to the present. It's possible that your wife can tell you're not listening but has a pattern of giving up or just feeling annoyed about it -- maybe you can enlist her help keeping you on track.
posted by xo at 1:43 AM on May 15, 2005

Good responses above. Definitely consider some sort of therapy- even if it's short term.

One thing that helped me with this same sort of behavior was I inducted myself into the cult of the Moleskine notebook. I got the simple small ruled notebook, yes they're expensive, but that's part of the point, it motivates you to hold onto it. Transform that notebook into your offline brain- bring it with you everywhere- write down the things you have to do immediately. (Don't get tricked into getting the day planner- the design is not so good and you end up wasting lots of paper).

Good luck- even the fact that you are trying to do something about it should help the matter.
posted by jeremias at 3:47 AM on May 15, 2005

My husband sometimes doesn't listen to me, and I sometimes don't listen to him. I think it's because we are so familiar to each other. It's not that we're not important to each other, it's just that what is in front of us (news, games, whatever) is newer and therefore seems to command more of our attention. In other words, sometimes I get the feeling that I see my husband all the time, I can always ask him later what he said, while the news is on right now and I feel pressured to see what is going to be said next, so the news seems immediately more important for my attention.

I think what others have said above about refocusing your priorities is true. My husband may be around all the time, but that should not make him less important to me. I do make an effort to listen to him, even if I have the feeling that what I'm doing is important. He is much more important to me than anything else, and I just have to remind myself of that.
posted by veronitron at 5:47 AM on May 15, 2005

I want to second asavage. You have to take the attitude that nothing is more important than your wife's happiness; you have to be tuned to her frequency, so to speak, so that when she starts talking to you you put aside everything else and focus on her, because she's the most important thing in your world. (This only works in the long run, of course, if she takes the same attitude towards you, but I'm presuming for the sake of the discussion that that's the case.)

sometimes I get the feeling that I see my husband all the time, I can always ask him later what he said, while the news is on right now and I feel pressured to see what is going to be said next, so the news seems immediately more important for my attention.

I suspect this is a common problem these days: everyone is so bombarded by constant streams of electronic infotainment that it's hard to detach and pay attention to an actual person in the room with you. I'm lucky to have grown up at a time when my input was largely written; it's a lot easier to put down a book or newspaper and focus on someone.
posted by languagehat at 6:37 AM on May 15, 2005 [1 favorite]

My wife and I have a big write-on/wipe-off calendar, through which we communicate upcoming dates and events. That way, we don't have to listen to each other. Ha!

The problem is that I'm going senile before I even hit middle-age.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:58 AM on May 15, 2005

I'll third asavage. It sounds like you take your wife granted. Subconsciously you may think it's fine if you let her down or ignore her once and a while. You guys have a lifetime together. But this 'sloppiness' quickly becomes a habit. There are lots of people far more concerned impressing their boss or clients than their SO. As crass as this may sound, consider that your wife is your customer. You have a job to make her happy; the customer is priority #1.
posted by nixerman at 10:43 AM on May 15, 2005

You might want to turn off the TV if she's talking to you during that time. Most people tune completely out when their watching the tube. If your reading, stop, look and listen. Trust me, eventually you will get the payoff.
posted by codeofconduct at 3:29 PM on May 15, 2005

Are you able to see a doctor? If so, ask for a hearing test. Insurance will probably cover it if you mention that not being able to hear your wife is causing tension in your marriage.

I had a similiar problem with my husband. He'd talk, I was aware he was talking but I wouldn't hear him. And it was causing friction because I felt I wasn't being informed of things. He'd have told me but I hadn't noticed.
posted by luneray at 8:28 PM on May 15, 2005

Ugh. This is so me. I'll be in the midst of something (funny enough, usually reading MetaWhatever or a book) and my husband will be nattering on. I'll make the appropriate noises but not have a clue as to what he's said. To alleviate the problem, we try to make sure he has my undivided attention when talking to me about something important. I'll minimize MetaWhatever or put down the book and actually engage in the conversation.

This doesn't happen because I lack respect for my husband. I'm just really good at tuning out distractions.

I like the idea of the wipe board calendar and suggest we get one for appointments, holidays and the like.

I ♥ AskMe.
posted by deborah at 9:32 PM on May 15, 2005

My solution to forgetfulness cost me forty bucks 10 years ago. Changed my life. Dictate the factoid into the credit-card-sized recorder, and deal with the accumulated notes later on when you're at your calendar. Note: bigger recorders don't work -- this one works because it's so small you will always have it with you. Pen and paper don't work either. I could write reams about this ...

These days I carry a cell phone with a built in Palm PDA and ... wait for it ... a built-in one-touch voice recorder. I Never Forget Anything Now. I think that itself has some interesting brain-clogging effects on oneself, but that's another thread ...

Anyway, just a couple technical solutions. Definitely the therapist angle should be explored too.
posted by intermod at 9:35 PM on May 15, 2005

Ask your wife for help. Occhiblu has excellent suggestions for more active listening tricks.

I got into a few arguments over whether or not i was paying attention vs. whether (and how) I had ever been informed. It was both of our faults, and nearly turned into a self-fullfilling passive-aggressive thing before we addressed it. We worked it out thus: 1) I will stop what I'm doing and pay active attention if 2) you will make a clear break from our mutual exchange of "what I did today" stories before mentioning our plans for next Tuesday, etc.
posted by desuetude at 6:25 AM on May 16, 2005

I'm gonna echo mischief here. Write it down. Stop what you are doing, keep a separate calendar for your wife somewhere central, have her write stuff down if you aren't home, or if you are home, have her tell you stuff while YOU write it down. Check the calendar before you leave the house, every time. Set your watch alarm. If you forgot why it went off, call her. If it remains a problem because you can't get in touch with each other, get cell phones. For a while, make her your first priority, the ease back as you learn to keep her in mind, and see if you can keep her stuff and your stuff in mind at the same time. Keep the calendar routine up too, and add your stuff to it.

I do not have experience with this situation, but I've had a very poor memory in my time, and had bad habits to break. Writing things down and keeping track of my progress (little award trackers like stickers on the calendar) works for me. Remember this is about self-improvement and the continual process of succeeding as a human being and becoming happier overall. Oh, and what asavage said :).
posted by lorrer at 6:40 AM on May 16, 2005

No joking here, have you had your hearing checked?

My wife has a habit of talking to me while doing something else, which means she's facing away from me. That makes it a little difficult to hear her

I also have a tendancy to tune out my wife. TV, kids, the day's events, etc... all easily take my attention away from what she is saying.

I've found face-to-face eye-to-eye conversation is the best way for me. (besides she's beautiful) We also have a big calendar to write on, which I love.
posted by mcescher at 9:51 PM on May 17, 2005

It's good that you're going through this questioning now, before she's gotten fed up with you and decided to divorce you. If you need a kick in the pants, imagine how much you'll hate yourself till the end of your days if, having had this opportunity to reflect and change, you still wind up fucking it up and losing her.

At that point, you won't even deserve to feel bad about it. You will have chosen a solitary life of eating cheetos in front of the TV, and you'll just have to get used to enjoying it.
posted by scarabic at 12:05 PM on May 18, 2005

Reading this thread makes me feel like a big jerk. I am acutely aware that I tune most people out when they are talking to me but maybe even more so with my wife. It's not that I am not interested in the topic (at least most of the time) or that I don't care about the person, it's just that I have a very hard time focusing on listening to others. My wife was so tired of it that she now schedules things for me in my Outlook calendar which then goes to my PDA. However, that is definitely not the answer. I'm sure I won't be able to change 100% but I think asavage hit the nail on the head with the comment about the duty to my marriage. I Will Make A More Heartfelt Attempt To Listen. Great topic and great suggestions.
posted by toomuch at 2:54 PM on May 18, 2005

Great advice from everyone. Listening to people and really hearing them is a skill you can practice. No matter how well you know your wife, there's lots of things you don't know. Ask her about her day--but really ask. Try to figure out what you don't know, and ask about that.

I think the best listening technique I know is: after someone tells you something, summarize it back to them in your own words. "So your boss was being a total jackass today." Not just parroting their story, but joining in the story-telling.

The nice thing is, repeating things back usually helps you realize what you don't know, so there's a sort of snowball effect: "So in other words, you were irritated at your boss because he was condescending? Or just because he was wrong?" Summarizing other people's stories leads you to more questions, which leads to you understanding better.

I suspect that this will also help you remember littler things, like giving the fish an extra scoop of food, because you become accustomed to actively listening to what she says.

One other thing: it may be difficult, but try to catch yourself not listening--and then expose yourself. "I'm sorry, could you say that again? I think I got distracted." This will be embarassing, and you probably shouldn't do it every five minutes. But it'll snap you out of whatever trip to the Bahamas you were taking. And you're much more likely to remember the exchange.
posted by Polonius at 3:11 PM on May 18, 2005

I think you're right to mention the subconscious. It's very clear that your conscious intention is to put your wife as the first priority in your life. However, there is an incongruence between your intentions and your actions.

That's a sure indicator that something is going on in your unconscious - somehow there is a rogue part of you in the driving seat when it comes to following through with action that matches your intention.

It's almost like there is a part of you in the light (the conscious) that can't hear what's in the dark (the unconscious), and whilst the light part might be governing your thoughts, the dark side is governing your actions.

Sometimes, to match our actions and intentions, all we need is the right tool, and there are excellent suggestions above. Sometimes, though, tools geared towards your conscious part can simply be versions of "try harder". They just don't seem to work.

So that's when you might need to do some exploring of your unconscious. That means finding out who exactly is in the driving seat when you're not listening.

Ask yourself this - is there a part of you that doesn't want to listen to your wife?
What does that part of you get out of the hurt you feel when you don't hear your wife?
What are the priorities of that part of you?
If you were not listening ON PURPOSE, what purpose would that be?
When did this part come into your life?
Who taught this part how to do what it does?
etc. etc.

As you begin to answer these questions, as you start to draw the outline of this part, you might be surprised at what emerges from the shadows. You might find that there is a discussion you need to have with this part. You might find that it has something useful and powerful to say to you. It might have some gold for your life.

At the very least you'll know yourself better.

So, yes, try the light side first. Try the pda's, the memos, the active listening. Do it with all your heart. But then, if that fails, listen out for that appointment with the dark side.

If you found this useful, you might find this useful too: The Mankind Project.
posted by Charon at 10:42 PM on May 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

I've been using the "Hipster PDA" (binder clip, index cards, pen) to write down the things my wife tells me and I check it at the beginning of everyday, entering them into my calender or task lists as needed. I like it because index cards are so disposible, I can give them to other people and they don't require a power source.

Writing things down also gives the impression that I take her seriously and feel her needs/words are important.

Good Luck!
posted by Wong Fei-hung at 8:30 AM on May 19, 2005

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