o’clock one morning a wife wakes up her husband and says to
him, “Honey, it’s hot in here.” He turns his head towards
her and says “Yes, I know,” and goes back to sleep. When
they wake up hours later to get ready to go to work, the
wife says to her husband, “Honey why didn’t you put on the
fan last night?” He responds by saying “you did not tell
me to do that.” She say’s “Yes I did.” An argument ensues
leading to the wife shouting “You never listen to me.”
Literally, she did not ask him to turn on the fan although
that was the message intended. This is a far too common
way of communicating. Individuals have an assumption that
their partners will always understand the message intended,
and this is wrong.
It is imperative for us to appreciate that even when both
know the dictionary definition of the words being used, it
is wrong to assume that the one listening will get the full
message intended. This means our thinking would be
impacted by our life experiences and these experiences will
change the definition of words in our minds.
This also means that the words we use when we speak are
determined by are core belief system—our values, world view,
and self-image. In other words, how we interpret what we
hear is unique to our deep, personal life experiences. And
what we hear is not always what is being said. Perhaps
another way to illustrate this is how people define the
difference in temperatures in various countries. For
example, a Canadian visits Nassau during our “winter” time
when the temperature is 60 degrees. We boastfully tell the
tourist to make sure to use a sweater because it is
“cold.” When the tourist experiences the “cold” whether
she is pleasantly surprise of the warmth and exclaims “This
is not winter.” “Winter” for Bahamians means something
different to Canadians.
Here’s a key point. After the tourist experiences a
Bahamian winter, he or she will then have a new definition
of the word winter and will understand what it means when
she hears a Bahamian speak again. This is because we filter
what we hear through our own life experiences. We base our
interpretation on or own definition and meaning of words and
not the definition and meaning of the words of the speaker.
This brings me to something I must emphasize. Never assume
that your romantic partner gets the message you intended
each time you speak. Yes, your partner will be able to
write down word for word what you said but still might not
have gotten the message intended. Then what must we do?
Take the time to clarify what is being said before entering
a discussion or argument. It is best to restate to the
person in your own words what they are saying. If you are
not understanding what was said, then the person giving the
request should take the time to clarify. It is important
not to argue.
The language of each one of us is uniquely patterned but it
does not come with a set of instructions for understanding.
Persons must be patient to take the time to learn their
partner’s language—the meaning and purpose of words and
phrases of partner. I’ve have clients who would respond to
a question from a partner with the words “It’s Okay.” The
word “okay” has a connotation of mediocrity or not the
best. But that is not always true. For some people it is
their language of norm for expression of satisfaction.
For example, I asked a client “On a scale of 1 to 10 what
is okay? Consider one is very bad and ten in the best.”
The client said nine. That shocked his wife. She thought
he meant about as two or three. The answer created a
relief and started the relationship of a positive track.
The bottom line is that individuals in romantic
relationships should develop the skill to listen to what is
not being said. Clinical Psychologist Dr. Tony Humphreys,
in his article entitled “Please hear what I am not
“The greatest gift you can give to another is an
unconditional acceptance of his or her unique presence.
Another wonderful gift that brings hope is to hear
what a person is not saying or what a person is not
doing. The reality is that we all wear masks – masks
that hide the truth of our individuality and of the deep
hurts that we have experienced. The number of masks that
we create depends on the frequency, duration, and
intensity of the hurts experienced. Masks are defensive
creations against having to re-experience the traumas of
emotional abandonment, sexual violation, of ‘not being
good enough’, ‘of having to prove myself all of the
time’, of living under a tyranny of ‘shoulds’, ‘have tos’,
of ‘having to do everything perfectly.’”
An important point Dr. Humphreys make in his article is that
we wear masks due to our experiences, joyful or painful.
These experience impacts the choice of words and we create
in our own mind new definitions and intention of those
words, but the speaker may not be cognizant of that.
Therefore, be patient with each other and never assuming
that you know what your partner is saying. This also means
that the listener would be hearing based on his or her
In many marriages one of the biggest complaint by a spouse
is that one’s spouse is not listening to what the other is
saying. No, the partner is not saying that his or her
spouse is deaf. It means that one is not understanding what
is being said. It also means that the speaker is expecting
the listener to read between the lines. This is wrong. To
make sure one “understands,” the listener must assume that
he or she does not know the message intended by the
speaker. Therefore, as stated earlier, the listening would
ask a question like “Are you saying you want me to come home
earlier tonight?” Or make a statement like “I am hearing
you saying that you want me home earlier tonight.” The
speaker must be patient with the listener because he or she
is not a mind reader and cannot know what the thought or
Now you should have a deeper understanding of what it means
to listen with understanding, compassion and acceptance.
This is one of the most important tools to learn in a
marriage. It might take years to learn this skill, so it
is important to be patient with each other.
Barrington H. Brennen, MA, NCP, BCCP, is a marriage and
family therapist and board certified clinical
psychotherapist, USA. Send your questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
or write to P.O. Box CB-11045, Nassau, The Bahamas, or
or call 242-327-1980.