All Doug Zeigler wanted to do was fix what was upsetting his wife. When she finally got through to him about what she needed... it changed everything.
My wife is upset. Not about anything I've done, just upset over daily stressors. My gut reaction is I want to distract her from whatever is bothering her and to get her to smile. I think, "If I can just get her to smile, it will all be OK." In other words, I want to fix whatever's wrong.
But she doesn't need fixing. She needs me to listen and be there for her, not offer up solutions. But that instinctual need to protect and deflect all of the bad from her is drowning out the logic that is fighting to stay at the front lines of this self-warfare. I start by saying something silly, my normal approach to "helping" my wife. The opening salvo launched to combat her frustrations and unhappiness. I'm usually pretty deft at this dance, but this time she just looked at me and said, "Stop trying to fix me and LISTEN." She didn't say it angrily, she just said it matter-of-factly.
So I did exactly that. I sat on the couch, just hearing what she had to say. Not just hearing the words she said, but processing what she said instead of immediately reacting. I will say it was not easy for me to just absorb what she said without trying to deflect her mind from what was causing her stress and anxiety. I even interjected a few times, but managed to stop myself from joking or making a reference to what might help. I was her sounding board; a place to verbally throw her thoughts and feelings that were weighing her down and have them roll down that wall so they didn't infect her mind and spirit. Or maybe I was more like a vomit bag in that case. Either way, she needed to jettison the bad and harmful out of her, and she needed me to handle the onslaught.
It was difficult for me to keep my yap shut, but it was therapeutic for her. She was able to get this off her chest and not be "advised" on what to do. She knew what she needed to do before she started spilling her frustrations. I think it's somewhat like a tea kettle: she just needed to let off some steam.
It's cliche to say that communication is the key to successful relationships, but that doesn't mean it's not true. Too often (I'm more guilty than most, I'm afraid) men think of communication as just was what words fly out of our mouths, be they poignant or benign. But what about non-verbal communication? According to Psychology Today, a 1967 study done by Albert Mehrabian demonstrates that 55 percent of communication is attributable to body language, 38 percent to tone of voice, and a mere 7 percent of communication is from the actual words spoken. YE GODS! If we're taking into account just the words someone is saying, we're missing out on over 90 percent of what's meant to be relayed to us. Hell, even if we get the tone of what's being said along with the words, we're still under 50 percent of total reception. Less than half! If I link that to my knee-jerk reaction to want to stem the turmoil in my wife's brain (which honestly begins as soon as I can sense the tone of what she's saying, which effectively cuts off my mind being fully invested in listening. I'm too consumed with trying to correct it to devote my full attention), then I'm clearly not even CLOSE to hearing and comprehending what she's telling me.
So back to this listening thing. Turns out you need to do more than let the words enter your ear and make their way to your brain. You need to multitask: pay attention to the tone of their voice; notice and appreciate the nuances of their facial expressions; take note of hand gestures (even the one-fingered variety). The environment matters too. She's certainly not going to be as frank in, say, a supermarket as she would be in your living room. Little things matter, and by being more aware and using all your senses to listen instead of only using your ears, you'll be communicating on a level you didn't think was possible. It's important to remember, though, that everyone's nonverbal communication is unique to them. So is yours. The upside to this is over time you'll develop a whole unwritten language between one another. No decoder ring needed, either!
This sort of thing takes practice. Considering the years and years of mental programming that went into me wanting so badly to fix the world for those I love, it's not surprising that it can't be undone in just a few sessions of this new way of communicating. I still struggle mightily with it, and I'm certain that I'll continue to struggle with it for some time. But it's worth the effort to try. I connect with my wife so much deeper than I have with anyone else, and I attribute it to my change in approach along with my insanely intense attraction to her on all levels. That sounds cliche too, but again, that doesn't mean it isn't true.
A funny realization that came from all this -- all those years of wanting to "fix" whatever was bothering or hurting or stressing out those that I love? All along, it was me that needed the fixing.
This post originally appeared on The Good Men Project.