Leaving Home - Lessons in Listening by Ness Mountain
Some years ago, my wife, Heather, almost left me.
I was totally unprepared. Isn’t that shameful? I mean, how could a guy be so out of touch that he didn’t know his wife was thinking of leaving? Years earlier, I remember listening to an acquaintance complain that his wife had left him “out of the blue” and thinking, “You jerk, you must have been totally disconnected from her”. But here I was in the same situation.
She couldn’t stand the arguing. From her point of view, I was arguing instead of listening. For example, she didn’t like it when I left the toaster oven open. The conversation would go something like this:
“For the nine-hundredth time, please close the toaster.”
“We have mice.”
“Well, I don’t think we have very many. I just don’t remember to do it. And it’s not that big a deal. Who cares?”
…And so on. She’d give up after a while. I would feel like I’d won the argument, because she hadn’t had an answer for my last point. If she really cared about the toaster, I thought, she’d keep arguing until I gave in. And I was willing to give in, eventually, even when she didn’t have what I felt was a compelling reason for what she wanted. It’s just that it would take a lot of determination on her part. I figured that was reasonable: I didn’t want to get pushed around. If she wanted me to change my behavior “just because”, and not because she could convince me of the reason—well, she should have to work for it. (She could have brought up the fact that the cats had apparently peed in the toaster, for example. But she didn’t, this time. And they only did it once. I think.)
This was how I’d learned to communicate, growing up. Jewish families tend to be rather argumentative. But Heather’s not Jewish, and it felt like everything was a fight to her. If she didn’t have a reason, that I could relate to, for what she wanted, getting it just felt impossible, like I was sitting in judgment on her and what she wanted. Over time, she got extremely frustrated.
Whenever she asked for things, and I couldn’t relate to her reasons, I’d try and convince her of my point of view, not because I didn’t want her to get what she wanted, but just in the spirit of a free exchange of opinions (I thought). She felt like I was shutting her up, like I didn’t really hear what she was saying. So although I could get what I wanted from her—because of how she was raised—I wasn’t giving her an equal chance to get her way, though I wasn’t aware of it. After all, I was always willing to hear her opinion. But in fact, there were a lot of issues she’d given up on, unable to get through to me.
In the end, she was ready to leave rather than have to argue with me any more.
When she said she was leaving, I was flabbergasted. Why? It was hopeless, she said, she couldn’t explain it to me. Finally realizing that I must be making some terrible mistake, I begged her to stay, to stop and explain the problem. I vowed to do better, whatever it was. I groveled.
That got through. I don’t think she ever understood that, in my self-centered stubbornness, I sincerely wanted to be a good husband, to give her what she wanted, to make her happy.
She explained. She wasn’t getting what she wanted. My first reaction was, “But why didn’t you tell me?”. She had, over and over, but I never took her seriously. I finally got it. I swore that from then on, I would listen better. I would believe that she really wanted what she said she wanted. I would stop arguing so much.
There was a massive shift in the power balance between us. For a while, I pretty much did as I was told, until she started to trust me more, and I improved my listening skills.
I’ve changed a lot since then. It has affected the way I deal with everyone, because when I don’t understand what someone is saying, now, I still take them seriously.
It’s called listening.
Ness Mountain is a counselor and urban shaman living in Portland. Comments on Leaving Home are welcome. Email Ness at [email protected]