Help, my boyfriend is a bad listener!
June 25, 2013 11:22 PM   Subscribe

Need advice on how to deal with my lovely boyfriend who has trouble shutting off.

I've been with my boyfriend for 2.5 years. We have a good relationship on the whole, but most of the problems we DO have are squarely in the realm of "bad communication." We have a lot of avoidable misunderstandings that lead to fights.

Here's the thing: He's just not a very good listener. He interrupts, doesn't actively listen, and sometimes goes on and on about a topic of his interest without noticing that the other person is getting bored. (Side note: His father has an autism spectrum disorder and is 10,000x worse, so I think this is partially genetic, but I don't think it's necessarily medical in his case).

I love him a lot, and I want to work this out, not only for us, but because he has trouble connecting with people socially, and I feel like this is a major part of it. It can be stressful for me when we hang out with groups of people because, while they like him overall, I can see when they're uncomfortable and wanting to get out of the conversation, but he doesn't.

Additional info: I recently lost my father to cancer, and I feel like I'm going to need extra emotional support and listening skills from him as I grieve. I know he cares and wants to be supportive, but hasn't learned HOW to do so. How do I bring it up gently, without the vibe of "I want to fix you because you're broken," but "I need this for our relationship, and I think this would make you a happier person"?
posted by petiteviolette to Human Relations (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Like this: "I need this for our relationship, and I think this would make you a happier person"

You hit the right note there: it's not about something being wrong with him, it's about observing a better path he might take once he knows about it, and that it's important to you that you both take that path going forward.

Secondarily, try to speak about your need for him to just listen in "I" terms: "I need to grieve for my Dad, and that means talking to you without you interrupting me or making suggestions to me." Avoid sounding judgemental, just phrase it as "this is what I need right now." The underlying premise should be "we're in a relationship, and we do things like this for each other even if we don't understand why or do it naturally."

Like your boyfriend, I'm an interrupter and a fixer, and it's a habit over which I had little control until I started exercising strong control over it. Once I understood that it was problematic, I learned to figuratively clench my mouth shut and let others finish. The battle was for me to understand that it was problematic and to make the decision to be strict about it with myself. Be patient if you see he's trying--I'm almost certain he doesn't understand that he's being rude and unsupportive.
posted by fatbird at 11:48 PM on June 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

With people in my life like this, I've found that it helps tremendously if I've worked out a signal with them that effectively communicates "you're doing that thing again, stop it and listen." The thing is that not everybody reads body language the same way, and when someone is lost in their own head the way that you've described your boyfriend, they need extra help.

The signal can be anything that is a different type of communication than what you've been trying. One example would be you taking hold of his hand. (If you're hand-holding people on the regular, this wouldn't work as well.) Other kinds of touch can be very effective, because it will bring the talkative person back to reality. Specific phrases can work, although they can get grating or feel awkward in company. Key gestures, although kind of baseball signally, can work. Whatever the two of you are comfortable with, that doesn't feel patronizing to either party.

Basically, most people who have these problems know that they do. If your boyfriend really is lovely, he should be glad to latch on to a way to be supportive to you. I think that starting a conversation with "There's a thing I think we can work out together that will really help us keep a good thing going" might be the right angle. Explain that it isn't a matter of you correcting him, but just working out a signal between the two of you so you can, effectively, be his wingman in this manner.

Another point is that communication is a two-way street, yes? I wonder if there's something you're doing or not doing that your boyfriend would massively prefer that you improve upon. You two can work out a signal for you, too. Making it reciprocal is a way to feel like you're investing in the relationship together.
posted by Mizu at 11:59 PM on June 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Can you communicate differently? My husband likes to take time to think about things and formulate his ideas, and pressure to respond quickly stresses him out. I have ADD and terrible short-term memory, so even when I try my hardest I'm terrible at retaining details of ongoing conversations. We've found that communicating in writing (usually by email) helps us talk to one another about important and difficult topics.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:10 AM on June 26, 2013

Can you be explicit? I think you're going to have to be.

"Honey, I'm talking right now."

"What I need right now is for you just listen and hold my hand."

"Muffin, I love you but I don't care about (boring thing.)"

"OK really, stop talking or change your topic."

FYI, people who are partnered with people who have a hard time reading social cues (like disinterest) often have secret code words for use at social events. "OH MY GOD DID I LEAVE THE OVEN ON?" probably means "Honey, enough now."
posted by DarlingBri at 1:16 AM on June 26, 2013 [9 favorites]

"I need this for our relationship, and I think this would make you a happier person"

You express your needs to your partner by owning them as your needs. You don't have to bury your needs in a good deed that helps him. It's not your job to make your partner a happier person. Your needs are legitimate and they deserve their own discussion(s).
posted by headnsouth at 4:12 AM on June 26, 2013 [11 favorites]

It's not your job to make your partner a happier person.


Making your partner happier is a defining part of a healthy relationship - echoed by Buddha to Dr. Joyce. 2 thousand years of wisdom can't be wrong m
posted by Kruger5 at 6:58 AM on June 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's not your job to make your partner a happier person.

This. A thousand times.

Also try reframing 'is a bad listener' into 'isn't using a listening style that is compatible with me.'

What I'm about to say is goig to sound strange. People don't have a problem until they decide try do. What this means is that you have a problem with your SO's listening behavior, but he doesn't seem to have a problem with it, or with the effects of his behavior on you.

It's a common trope in Al-Anon that you can't change people who don't want to change. It's true everywhere. There's nothing in your question about what he HAS tried to improve this. Not do you mention how you know he wants to change. Him saying 'please help me be a better listener' is different from you knowing intuitively that he wants to be a good partner. I say this because not everyone feels/knows that being a good listener is part of being a good partner.

Finally, he's also not responsible for making you happy. His listening style is uncomfortable for you. It's up to you to decide if you can live him as he is. Because 'I love you, now change' is not really a healthy place to start from.
posted by bilabial at 7:15 AM on June 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

You shouldn't depend on one person to satisfy all of your emotional needs. It puts too much pressure on that person. Go to a grief counselor and/or set up girls' night out. We have female friends for a good reason- women talk better than most men.

For the other things, the things that lead to fights, consider making it visual. Send him emails or write notes. 'Please take out the trash' 'If you put the seat down every time this month I will give you a blow job' 'Please take me to the movies Friday night'

You can mention to him, in a non-heated moment, that he has a tendency to over-talk and ask him if he wants to work on it with a therapist. If he doesn't then you will have to learn to embrace it or move on. You can't fix people. And getting angry at him for not 'hearing' you will only make him close off and pull away from you more. Your behavior is the only thing that you have any control over.
posted by myselfasme at 7:49 AM on June 26, 2013

I think if his poor listening skills is of the autistic type maybe he would be more opening to listening if you told him exactly what he needed to do, and why it was important. Maybe he wants to listen but he just isn't clear how or why he needs to do it, so it isn't laziness or willful ignorance, but confusion. So maybe you could solve this problem by clearly and gently asserting what you want and what he needed to do exactly to make you happy. I know it is frustrating when you have to explain what you want and part of that need is to have someone understand you intuitively, but if he was brought up in a household where nobody taught him how to do that growing up maybe you have to just tell him. I took this course about intercommunication skills and it included information about being assertive which meant:

(a) telling them what you were happy about in your relationship
(b) explaining what you needed and why
(c) explaining that there are consequences if your needs are not met and setting out boundaries

E.g. "I love you very much and I have fun spending time with you and I just wanted to let you know that I feel like I' m going to need extra emotional support and listening from you because recently lost my father to cancer, and it has been very emotionally difficult. What I would like is if when I ask you to listen, you don't interrupt and you try to understand how I am feeling and tell me what I said in your own words every once in a while. When I ask you to listen, could you do that for me please? Because it is very important to me that I am in a relationship with someone who supports me and gives me space to talk let out my grief. I love you, and it is very important that my emotional needs are met right now."

Something like that? Which makes it clear that this isn't an attack but it's about asserting your needs and laying out boundaries because girl, your needs are important! And having a trigger phrase 'listen' or something which effectively bookends the listening session might make it easier for your boyfriend.

It also might be a good idea to find other people to do your venting with (who also enjoy talking and listening) so that you can make sure that all your emotional needs in a symbiotic relationship where both people enjoy and benefit from the talking. This might mean talking to a therapist, or a friend, or a family member, or acquaintance who relishes girl talk and would love to share problems with you too! Because people are not perfect so it's a good idea to find different people for different sides of yourself and opening up to people is a great way to bond and strengthen friendships.

I'm so sorry about your father, hope you are well.
posted by dinosaurprincess at 8:40 AM on June 26, 2013

If he doesn't then you will have to learn to embrace it or move on. You can't fix people.

I want to gently dispute this in this particular context. You can't fix people, but you can change patterns of interaction with them, and so can they, and this is most successfully approached by explicitly narrowing it to "let's change this pattern of interaction between us, not you or me alone."

Sooner or later, every relationship contains certain behaviours on the part of the participants that are conscious behaviours, decided on and accepted and made habitual. "She likes it when I make coffee when I get up", "he hates it when I pile things on the coffee table", "When she asks me to rub her neck, she wants a massage, not sex". Lots of learned cues pile up, lots of "please don't do this" or "I love that you noticed that I like this." That's normal, and there's no reason that pain points in the relationship can't be handled the same way: "Please don't interrupt me when we're talking like this" is a perfectly reasonable request, and can become a learned and habitual behaviour, and doesn't require soul-searching or attitude checking or an epiphany.

People can always change their behaviour, and this is basic to the ongoing negotiation that is a relationship.
posted by fatbird at 8:57 AM on June 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

Thanks for all the great replies.

I think he definitely knows he doesn't interact well with others (and finds it upsetting), but doesn't really understand the mechanics of why, and concrete clues are very helpful. I do sometimes say, "Hey, stop and listen, you're interrupting," but sometimes he will hear that, stop talking, but clearly be antsy about his next turn in the conversation to the point that I know he's not listening. So I will work on a better, clearer signal.

I will also try to be more explicit. I do have trouble clearly stating my needs sometimes (I'm a let's-all-be-harmonious-please-no-conflict-I'll-suffocate-my-own-desires kind of person and I'm definitely working on that), so I appreciate the reassurance that saying something like "I need to talk now and I need you to listen" does not make me a horrible selfish person.
posted by petiteviolette at 11:01 AM on June 26, 2013

I agree with dinosaurprincess and fatbird; while you can't change other people, if this is ASD-related (and oh how perfectly you describe my partner's family), then frank discussion really can help. Imagine being raised by your boyfriend's father, in a family that treats the behavior as not only acceptable but in fact normal. Why would you be any good at letting other people talk? That just leads to you being steamrolled. Why would you know that you're supposed to not bore listeners to tears? You know how to deal with being bored -- you just interrupt with a monologue of your own! And so on.

Try, "I feel like I'm going to need extra emotional support and listening skills from [you] as I grieve. I know [you] care and want to be supportive, so please..." Ask for what you want. If you need him to just be quiet and listen, say so. If you want him to talk about your dad with you and not lecture on some hobby, say so and then remind him when he gets off topic. He's not trying to hurt you; he just needs guidance in how to help.
posted by teremala at 11:06 AM on June 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

My relationship has gotten so much better since my lady learned to say "Hey PA I'm not really that interested in hearing more about [mustaches/tumblr/WWI]." And I learn to hear that and not get defensive and just change the subject. Still haven't conquered listening too well but we're working on it!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:16 PM on June 26, 2013

"I need to talk now and I need you to listen" does not make me a horrible selfish person

It does not. And according to the "Men are problem solvers from Mars, women are emoters from Venus" school of relationship theory, what you actually may need to say is "I need to talk now, and just need you to listen without trying to solve my upset." Your partner may also find it a big relief to be told that "I'm sorry, I don't know what to say" is an okay thing for him to say in response. This kind of explicit communication involving declaration of needs has apparently saved like a gazillion marriages.

I didn't find the book life changing and didn't join the MFMWFV cult after reading 20 years ago, but I thought it was an interesting theoretical framework to understand. You might borrow it from the library and flip through it if the "problem solving" thing rings true for you.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:20 PM on June 26, 2013

Oh my gosh,
I agree with the stating your need's in "I" format. This has helped me get past so many road blocks of misunderstandings

Something that helped me getting the listening I needed from my excellent social communicator extrovert boyfriend of 6 years was laying out an active listening script. I originally learned this from "7 habits of highly effective people." I was (and still am) being interrupted, and problem solved from a very not on the spectrum person.

Now, I imagine learning this script echos what previous comments say about how being very explicit has helped in getting what they need.

If it helps, this is what the Active Listening Script card would say:
Choose one response:

1. Basic Active Listening: " I hear that you are feeling [angry, sad, upset, hurt, lonely, etc]"

2. Checking/Clarifying: "it sounds like you are saying [rephrase], is that correct? "

3. Mirroring Past Tense: "that must have been [Hurtful, frustrating, terrible, difficult, etc] for you."

4. Mirroring Present Tense: "you must feel [Alone, isolated, angry, insulted, etc]."

5. Affirming: "Its OK that you feel [see above] that is normal, anyone would react that way."

Active listening is completely detached from the listeners opinions, judgement, and fixes. This is really hard for someone to do. My boyfriend felt it took him out of the relationship equation but I kept explaining that it was something I need to feel heard, and it is a selfless and wonderful thing he can do that honestly did "fix" my problems.

My 2ยข is to literally hand this card when your feeling down about your father (or anything else). Then it becomes an actionable symbol of what you need without having to explain over and over again why you need the emotional support.
posted by mariecheri at 1:04 PM on June 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I absolutely love this segment from This American Life, about a husband who learns that he has Aspergers and then basically starts a self-improvement project, with the help of his wife, to learn to be a better communicator. He apparently also wrote a book. The segment is both hilarious and a pretty great description of how this couple went about improving their relationship.
posted by decathecting at 4:13 PM on June 26, 2013

Depending on his personality, humor might work as a stronger signal. My guy has no traces of Asperger/ASD, but he is really passionate about certain things, and he will start flooding me with information on those topics, to the point where I just want to say, "Enough!" So that's basically what I do, and now it's sort of a shared joke because we both understand that he has this tendency and can gently laugh about it. He will even (very sweetly) respond, "Oh, please, can I just tell you one more thing? Please?" And sometimes I let him just because it's nice that he asked, and that he's acknowledging that his behavior can be an imposition at times. (Of course, please ignore this advice if it would work poorly for someone with more of an Asperger/ASD orientation!)

More generally, I would encourage you to be more forthcoming with your needs and to try to see yourself as doing this for the good of your relationship, rather than out of selfishness. Within your relationship, it's your boyfriend's job to try to meet your needs, but it can also be your job to help him do this by giving him guidance. From your question and your follow-up, it seems like your reluctance to do this stems more from your own feelings than from any particular resistance that he's put up in the past. I would actually hazard a guess that, like the husband in the book that decathecting links to above, your boyfriend will respond VERY POSITIVELY to any specific instructions that you give him.
posted by Carmelita Spats at 5:09 PM on June 26, 2013

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