Articles by Alex Ryder, Communication, Conflict, Couple's counselling, Couples

How to have a conversation when your partner won’t listen to you

Do conversations about your day turn into arguments or leave you feeling isolated?

A common complaint I hear when people arrive for couples counselling is that one or both parties feel lonely. There can be many reasons for this, but a common scenario is that they’re just not having good conversations. Conversations about their day, about their work, or even just about something that is causing them stress, have become too difficult for them.

Inevitably one person will say they feel like they have to justify everything they say and defend their actions. Or that they feel like they have to have their story straight before they start speaking so they don’t “waffle on” or bore their partner. The other person might say they feel like their partner blows everything out of proportion, and makes a big deal out of simple things. They might also say that when they try to help their partner their partner doesn’t listen.

The more you can rely on your partner to help reduce your day to day stress then the more likely you will feel supported, connected and close to your partner. However if that day to day stress turns into an argument within the relationship, then you’re both likely to be left feeling frustrated and alone.

We all need the skills to be able to deal with external stress in our relationship in a way that causes us to feel closer rather than alone.

A good way to do this is by having a stress-reducing conversation[1]. Part of the reason these conversations become difficult is that often we’re not sure what our partner wants from the interaction. But funnily enough, in a lot of cases most of the stress reduction comes from the act of having the conversation rather than necessarily solving the problem at hand.

Here are some examples to reduce stress in your conversations:

The speaker shares what the source of the stress is.

  • Your goal as the speaker is to explain what is bothering you without minimising it or jumping straight to the solution. This is your opportunity to be understood.
  • Try to be open and patient with your partner’s questions about the issue.

The listener tries their best to understand their partner’s situation without problem solving…

Show interest – Ask questions focused on your partner rather than the situations. Eg: What is this like for you? What is the worst part of this?

Demonstrate Empathy – You might say things like “yeah, that would be difficult”; “oh, that’s a shame, I’d be disappointed too”; or “How annoying”

Try not to minimise the situation – We often think that offering perspective or saying things like “it’s not that bad” will help your partner feel better. However, it often has the opposite effect. It can make your partner feel silly and alone in the stress they are dealing with.

Side with your partner – This is not the best time to offer a different perspective or justify the behaviour of the other person in your partner’s story. If you think your partner is in the wrong, then save that for a discussion later. For now, be their ally so they don’t feel alone with this stress.

Don’t solve the problem – We all want to feel smart enough to solve our own problems. If you solve it for your partner, you rob them of that opportunity to feel proud and capable. As the listener, you are better not to offer solutions unless your partner specifically asks.

Don’t make it your problem – Again, most people like to feel capable in their own lives. Show interest in your partner’s problem, but don’t make it a shared problem unless your partner asks for your help in solving it.

The speaker finishes by adding one thing that was good about their day and one thing they are looking forward to in the next few days.

This is really important for the relationship because it helps balance the good with the bad.

Stress that arises in your daily lives has the ability to impact how close or alone you feel in your relationship. If you are feeling distant or lonely in your relationship soothing conversations like this one will help address that. A relationship counsellor can walk you through a conversation like this, but perhaps more importantly help you do the groundwork to help you get closer through good conversations.

If you feel like talking things through with an experienced Relationship Counsellor, contact us today on 02 8968 9397.


[1] This conversation is adapted from John and Julie Gottman’s “The Stress-Reducing Conversation”.

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