Letters From Esther #28: I couldn’t listen anymore and I snapped.

Esther Perel

Shall We Begin?

It was a bad therapy day. We were recording a one-time anonymous session for my podcast “Where Should We Begin,” but by the end of it, I was convinced the material was unusable. The recently married, early 30s, white American couple (and new parents) sitting across from me were bickering to no end

From sex to money to in-laws, they had fallen into a pattern of not hearing a single word the other was saying. Well, they were hearing the words, but only for the purpose of rebuttal. They both couldn’t help themselves from cringing, rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, and sighing every time the other spoke. Each partner’s whole body seemed to express an inability to accept a different reality from its own. 

But her tendency to speak over him, filling in details about his point of view—not as he had told her but as she saw it—was crashing the session. And he wasn’t any better. He would let her talk, fail to acknowledge any validity, and then pick the one thing he could refute. They were stuck in a feedback loop, leaving them both feeling trapped and frustrated. I knew they wanted to be better, more caring and loving; this is why they came. 

I wanted to know, how long had they been hearing each other without listening? I couldn’t even get there. They were locked in a cycle of negative escalation of blame, attack, counter-attack, and defense. The path forward, as a therapist, is to help them develop some basic skills for self-regulation to lessen the reactivity and to structure practices for listening. Usually, I would emphasize ways to connect to their own needs and be empathic to the others’. But they were cutting each other off so quickly that I began to experience some dysregulation myself. I was being inducted into their system. My therapeutic stance was slipping. And suddenly… 

I snapped. They had given me license to be direct—but had I been too direct? Had my reaction been inappropriate or unhelpful? I cringed at the reality that I would have to hear this failure played back as a podcast episode. I won’t tell you what I said (the tone is perhaps more important), but you can hear it for yourself because, after all that, we decided to release it as an episode anyway (linked below).

After decades of practice, I have learned that I can be critical about my work without falling into a slump of self-criticism, but it helps to be reminded. After I shared the episode with my supervision group, I tried to do the very thing I had advised the couple to do: listen openly to feedback. “We have to remember,” my peer told me, “that when people aren’t listening, it’s because they don’t feel heard.”

I reached out to the couple. I wanted them to know that, however inelegant my intervention had been, I was invested in their wellbeing. I was happily surprised to learn that things had gotten much better between them. “Instead of staying neutral or diplomatic like most people would have,” they said, “you told us what we really needed to hear.” I read the rest of their letter aloud, listening deeply to their words: “you told us we’re not broken and that we can work through this. I’ve listened to it completely.” 

Let’s Turn the Lens on You 

  • Pick a person very close to you with whom you sometimes have difficulty communicating.
  • How do you rank their listening skills? 
  • How do you rank your own? 
  • Invite them to listen to the podcast episode with you and have a mini-pod club.
  • Resist the urge to compare their listening skills to the couple’s. 
  • Instead, focus on your own.
  • Take turns practicing deep listening to each other as you each recap and react to what you have heard in the episode.
  • How did it go?

More From Esther

“I Don’t Mean To Be Mean But….” / a podcast episode

Listen to Season 5, episode 4 of “Where Should We Begin?,” referenced in the story above. She has no boundaries; he’s walled off. And their opposing communication styles cause immediate tension in this explosive session. So much so, that Esther finds herself adding to the chorus of angry voices.

“The Art of Conversation” / a newsletter

The art of conversation is a healthy balance of thoughtful speaking and hardcore listening. 

“Relationship Stress at a High? Try Spending Time With Friends” / a blog article

Where did we get this idea that one person is supposed to provide every facet of emotional connection available to man?

“When Transitioning Between Stages of a Relationship, Practice Adaptability” / a blog article

Adaptability in couples is about responding to life’s changing circumstances with good communication and a lot of flexibility.

Conversation Starters

A compendium of highly recommended sources of inspiration and information       

I’m Watching/Listening: 

I’m Experiencing:

  • I’m excited to be teaching In Search of Eros: Navigating Love, Lust, and Commitment at the Wisdom & Wellbeing Weeks at Blue Spirit in Costa Rica January 15-22, 2022. I welcome you to join me there.
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