Taking Turns with Your Spouse | Dr. Meir Wikler

A social scientist was once describing a hypothetical dinner party. Among the guests were people from New York and California.

After the party, they were asked to describe what it was like to meet others from across the country. According to the social scientist, the New Yorkers would describe the Californians as “dull and boring,” while the Californians woulddescribe the New Yorkers as “rude.” These negative impressions are the result of different regional conversational patterns. In California, for example, it is customary to wait until the other person is completely finished before one begins speaking. Not to do so would be considered ill-mannered and disrespectful. On the other hand, in New York, it is customary for speakers to overlap their conversation, with one person beginning to speak before the other person has completely stopped. Not to do so would be considered lethargic and lifeless.

While in certain regions of the country it may be socially acceptable to overlap in conversation, it is nevertheless not the optimum standard of social discourse. One of the seven traits that distinguish a wise person from a boor is that a wise person “does not speak while his friend is speaking.” (Avos 5:7)

The Tiferes Yisroel, elaborates on this Mishna as follows. “When a person contends with another, he should wait until the other person has completed everything he has to say. And [only] then should he reply. But he should not interrupt the other person because if he does, he will confuse him … Furthermore, it is not polite to disrespect someone by interrupting him because it makes it appear as if his words are of no consequence.”

It may not be practical or possible to completely avoid interrupting other people in all conversations. It is essential, however, for spouses to avoid interrupting each other when they are trying to conduct serious communication of their feelings.

In fact, it is so vital for effective marital communication to avoid interrupting each other that it is even necessary to structure important marital conversations by taking turns.  

During the administration of Ronald Reagan, a spokesman was once defending the president against insinuations that Mr. Reagan’s intelligence was so limited that he could not concentrate on more than one issue at a time. Trying to disparage the accusation, the spokesman said that the president was fully capable of “walking and chewing gum at the same time.”  While most of us are also capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, there are other activities in which we should not engage simultaneously. Two activities which fall into the latter category are listening and speaking.

In everyday, social conversation, we usually listen and speak back and forth, like players in a tennis or Ping-Pong game. I speak; then you speak; then I speak, again. In the same conversation, we each speak and listen many times, but hopefully not at the same time.

When, husband and wife speak with each other, however, the emotions can run higher than in social conversation. There is much more at stake. As a result, it becomes much more difficult for spouses to both listen and speak effectively during the same conversation.

Suppose, for example, a couple is experiencing marital tension. Each spouse feels hurt, misunderstood, frustrated, angry or all of the above. Then it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for each spouse to effectively speak and listen during the same discussion.

Since individuals can go back and forth switching the roles of speaker and listener many times in social conversation, why is it so difficult to do likewise in conversation with their spouses? The answer is that when conversation heats up between any two people and especially between husband and wife, the listener is barely listening at all. Although the listener may be quiet while the other spouse is speaking, he or she is in actuality mentally preparing what to say next. As a result, the listener is not truly concentrating on what the speaker is saying.  

Shifrah and Naftali, with a striking air of sophistication, walked into my office for the first time. They were both tall, well dressed, and extremely confident. At first, even I felt somewhat intimidated by their self-assured deportment.

Shifrah began by describing, in great detail, how she felt overly criticized by her mother-in-law. “Unfortunately, she’s a widow now and I try to be understanding. But when she speaks disparagingly about me to my own children, then I just cannot put up with that.”

Naftali squirmed in his seat, trying to control himself. After a few minutes he cut in on his wife. “Am I going to have a chance to speak, too? Or, are you planning to speak for the entire session?”

Shifrah begged “to finish” the points she wished to bring out and then turned the floor over to her husband.

“I know my mother can get pretty nasty, at times,” Naftaliconfessed to his wife. “But she is an older woman who is not about to change at this point in her life. If I took to heart everything she says to me, I would have had a dozen heart attacks already. You simply have to learn to ignore her.”

“Ignore her?” Shifrah shot back. “How can I ignore her when she is inciting my own children against me? Why, just yesterday, Rifka was fresh to me. And when I reprimanded her for it, she tried to defend herself by saying, ‘Even Bubbie says you’re always short tempered and grumpy.’ Is that any way for a 12-year-old to speak to her mother?”

Naftali shook his head in disgust. “You, know, I wasn’t going to bring this up, here. But your relationship with Rifka is not in trouble because of my mother. You have been very hard to live with since your father got sick. You mope around the house all day and you are constantly in a sour mood. In fact, just yesterday…”

“I am very worried about my father. He has been in and out of the hospital for almost a year and his condition is not getting any better. I run to visit him when he is hospitalized and to care for him when he comes home. You know my mother is not able to do everything all by herself. So I am under a lot of stress. That’s true. And I really thought you would be a little more…”

“I can appreciate how difficult it has been for you to see your father suffer like this. But you have to understand that yourcrying all the time is burdening the entire family. So if you get into disagreements with Rifka, you cannot blame it totally on what my mother says to…”

“Just a minute, Naftali, I think I have a right to expect my husband to support me once in a while, especially now when I am going through such a difficult time. But you never see how things affect me. Instead, you always take your mother’s side. For once, I would like to hear you defend me instead of your mother.”

“What are you trying to do?” Naftali blared. “Are you trying to put me in between you and my mother? Are you trying to make me choose between both of you? This is ridiculous. She is an old woman who has become bitter since my father passed away. You should try to be more mature about this and not take everything she says so seriously.”

It was clear that both Naftali and Shifrah were not listening to one another. They each desperately wanted to be heard. And as the session progressed, they each began to raise their voices. In addition, they each started to speak before the other was finished. It did not take long until they began interrupting each other. Then even I could not hear what they each were saying.

“Is this the way you two speak at home about this issue?” I asked as soon as I could get a word in edgewise.

“We don’t usually speak about this at home,” Shifrahacknowledged. “I suppose that is why we decided to make an appointment to see you.”

“If you were asking about our tone,” Naftali added, “we are generally less polite at home than we were just now.”

I then pointed out to Naftali and Shifrah what is already obvious to the reader. Neither one was listening to the other. Each one had a legitimate right as well as a pressing need to be heard. But they simply could not both be heard at the same time.

A few years ago, on Chol HaMoed, I observed a pair of orangutans at the zoo. One was lying on its side, completely relaxed and luxuriating in the warmth of the midday sun. The second one was sitting alongside, gently scratching the back of its mate, and picking out lice. The orangutan being deloused appeared so thoroughly satisfied that a small crowd of visitors had stopped to gaze at the proceedings. Even in the animal kingdom, I thought to myself as I left the zoo, only one spouse can be effectively gratified at a time. Surely they can, and most probably do, take turns scratching each other’s back. But when it is your time to scratch, you cannot expect to be scratched as well. While humans may not need their backs scratched as often as orangutans, they do need to be gratified by their spouses. And one of the greatest forms of gratification one can receive from a spouse is to be listened to when you have something important to say. There is, perhaps, no personal indulgence in life that is more deeply satisfying than to speak your heart out to someone who is genuinely interested, concerned and fully attentive. It is understandable, therefore, why people are willing to spend considerable time, effort and money to have the undivided attention of a total stranger for a 45-minute therapy session every week.

In order for one spouse to be fully gratified by being heard, and to truly feel heard, it is necessary for the other spouse to listen only and not defend, contradict, argue — or indeed, reply in any way. If, however, the other spouse insists on rebutting, challenging or answering back, then neither will be gratified at all.

In my office, for example, each marital counseling session is conducted with one spouse being the speaker and one spouse being the listener for the entire session. The spouse who assumes the listener role is not silent throughout the session. He or she must be an active listener, by reflecting and asking questions. The main point is that spouses must alternate in assuming the listener and speaker roles.

When they are at home, I also encourage couples to practice taking turns. If you are upset or bothered about something, I explain, you can and should approach your spouse and say that you would like to be the speaker and have your spouse be the listener. If your spouse agrees to listen, then you can share your feelings. But if your spouse is not ready to listen, for any reason, then you should not attempt to speak. If you do try to speak anyway, you simply will not be properly heard.

Learning to take turns is one of the most difficult hurdles for couples in conflict to overcome on their path toward mutual respect and affection. The urge to shoot back with your own point of view or even to interrupt, “to set the record straight,” is overwhelming. And most people have a difficult time initially controlling themselves while their spouse is the speaker.

“That’s not true,” “I never said that,” “You do the same thing to me” are just some of the ways spouses abandon the listener role and jump back into the speaker role out of turn.

As I point out to those who fail to stick to their role as listener, “Your feelings are important. You have a legitimate right to be heard. And your opinion certainly does count. But you are the listener today. If you do not stick to your role, then you cannot expect your spouse to listen when it is your turn to speak.

“What I want you to try to do is to carefully take your feelings and opinions about what your spouse has just said and tuck them into a velvet bag and close the zipper. Then put the bag with its valuable contents on the shelf and leave it there until it is your turn to speak.”

Some people challenge me with, “I agree it is important to take turns. But aren’t there some times when it is acceptable to correct a statement that is completely incorrect? If I let something go that is untrue, my spouse will think that I agree with what was said. Why should I simply sit by while my spouse continues to believe something that is totally false?”

I then clarify that my office is not a courtroom. No one is on trial and no indictments will be handed down. What is being presented is not evidence but, rather, feelings. Your responsibility as a listener is to understand your spouse’s feelings. Your role is not to pass judgment on the veracity of what your spouse is saying or to defend yourself in any way.

Taking turns is not easy, especially for couples in conflict. Nevertheless, it is essential for resolving short and long term differences between husbands and wives.

Try it. You may be surprised at how much can be accomplished.

_ _ _

Dr. Meir Wikler is a noted psychotherapist and family counselor in full-time private practice with offices in Brooklyn, N.Y. and Lakewood, N.J.   This article has been reprinted with permission of the author and publisher from Ten Minutes a Day to a Better Marriage: Getting Your Spouse to Understand You by Dr. Meir Wikler (Artscroll, 2003).


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