If you follow my writing, you will know that I am a huge advocate for high quality listening.
Most of our family and couple challenges can be solved when we choose to really listen to each other and discover what is going at a deeper level. When we don’t do this then we are in reactive mode, responding to the words being said and not their underlying meaning.
I know myself well enough to admit that I don’t choose my words very carefully when I am stimulated, upset, angry or something similar. This often provokes the situation further and takes discussions down rabbit holes and dead ends. When my partner can listen instead to my feelings and my needs in these moments, then we get much more easily to the core of whatever we are fighting about. When I’m really listened to with empathy then I come back to myself. I rediscover the bigger me and that part of me that temporarily took over subsides. We then get into understanding and connection from where we can see much more clearly what’s going on and get resolution.
So yes, listening is hugely important in my experience. The better we can listen, the closer we become and the easier and more enjoyable it is to live together.
Yet there are times when listening is not enough. No matter how patient or empathic I might be, there are limits.
If I want to be heard, if I have stuff I need to get off my chest then it is great to have someone who will listen to me. But I don’t want to overdo it. If I use the opportunity of my partner giving me undivided attention by dumping criticism and ranting, then why should I expect her to continue to listen? She’s doing her best but I’m being a jerk. And when I start to get verbally aggressive and abusive, why should she continie? If I’m going to be a jerk then the best thing is to walk away. At least until I become reasonable again. Why should anyone put up with that? Let alone my partner.
There is a point where we need to stand up and say,
‘There are limits to my willingness and capacity to listen to you. You have passed those limits and enough is enough. I need respect and understanding and care. So I will give myself space until you have calmed down and can express yourself in a more caring way.’
Empathy should never be an enabler of abuse from anyone – especially from our intimate partner and our family. It should serve connection but not at the expense of our own needs. We need to learn to be able to express our truth, our limits, our needs. To take our own space and not merely give space away. To protect ourselves.
It is the difference between a non-judgemental way of being and tolerance of damaging behaviour. I want to see the humanness in every person, no matter how hard that may be. And I also want to protect life against damaging behaviour. I see no conflict here. Protection of life through strong action is just as loving and caring as compassionate and empathic listening. If my child is running towards a busy road I will not stand idly by with a peaceful and non-judgemental look on my face. No. I will grab her as strongly as a I need in order to stop her. If you are judging me and using words to hurt me then I will protect myself by speaking up or by walking away.
Mona and I developed a simple way to help us come back to each other when one of us was on a rant. If, for example, I sensed Mona had lost connection with herself (and me) I would come up to her and take her face gently in my hands. I would look her in the eye and say calmly, but in a strong voice, ‘Mona, I love you. But enough is enough.’