S ome things are just plain hard to hear, so some people solve that problem by just plain not listening.

Wife: “I feel like you never want to spend time with me.”

Husband: “All you do is complain.”

Accusations tend to elicit a knee-jerk “make-this-conversation-end” reaction. One way to end a conversation is to make it painful for the other person. Throwing the ball back into their court is an all-time favorite. Why talk about your complaint about me when we can talk about my complaint about you? See how easily a counterattack can throw a speaker off her initial course:

Wife: “I do not complain. Some wives complain, but not me! You don’t know how lucky you are to have a wife who puts up with everything!”

Notice that the woman is no longer talking about her original issue (“You never want to spend time with me.”). Her husband’s counterattack made her forget all about that.

Of course, there are other popular ways to put a quick end to a conversation. A straightforward method is announcing the conversation is over.

Wife: “I feel like you never want to spend time with me.”

Husband: “I’m not talking about this.”

Notice the swift, easy way out! There are a few variations on this theme, such as, “We’re not going over this again,” or “Tell your therapist.” Alternatively, a person can just walk out of the room without saying anything. All of these “blockers” put an immediate end to the pain of the complaint. But they also put an end to real connection and affection. For some people, though, this is a small price to pay for never having to feel wrong or bad.

Interestingly, one can even end a conversation by replying to what was said.

Wife: “I feel like you never want to spend time with me.”

Husband: “Well, when you get up at five and work nonstop till midnight, let’s see how much time you make to spend with me! You’re ridiculous.”

Diminishing his partner and her complaint in one swoop, this spouse is training his wife to never raise issues. The pain she experiences as a result of her efforts to work things out will certainly discourage her in the future. And so issues will remain unresolved. This technique — a form of mockery and belittlement — utilizes sarcasm, eye-rolling, name-calling, and other strategies to make a person regret opening their mouth.

Listening Till It Hurts

The alternative is responding to a complaint with curiosity and interest.

Wife: “I feel like you never want to spend time with me.”

Husband: “Really? What makes you say that?”

Wife: “Well, whenever I suggest that we do something alone, you always invite other people. Also, I’m the only one who ever asks for time one-on-one; you seem fine with never having alone-time with me.”

This husband has had the courage to find out what the complaint is about, but now he needs the courage to address it. It’s tempting to make it go away again so that he won’t have to feel bad. Simple denial would work: “That’s not true. I ask you all the time. And there are plenty of times where we don’t invite other people...” Denial stops a conversation’s progress and diverts it to “court,” where evidence is examined for and against the initial complaint. Witnesses may need to be called in. “Ask the kids... they’ll tell you we spend plenty of time alone!”

These attempts to make a partner’s feelings seem invalid, unimportant, incorrect, unjustifiable, or otherwise unacceptable never make them actually disappear. The feelings simply fester. It’s better to just accept those feelings and deal with them.

“I didn’t realize I was doing that. I’m sorry. I’ll make sure that I initiate more invitations to be alone with you and also work harder to protect our private time.”

Notice how loving such a response is. Absent of defensiveness, the short answer conveys respect and caring. It brings the spouse closer instead of pushing her away. It rewards her for being open and honest. Asking a partner to clarify a complaint and then accepting that something needs to be improved — and announcing an intention to improve it — are simple steps with enormous marital ramifications. That conveys “We’re friends, not enemies,” “You can trust me with your feelings,” “I want to know you,” “I’m okay and you’re okay even if we make mistakes.” (Originally featured in Family First, Issue 558)