Five Reasons Your Partner Isn’t Listening to You
If you’re feeling unheard in your relationship, new research suggests why.
New research shows people's unconscious "partner attitudes" influence their behavior, thoughts, and feelings.
"Automatic partner attitudes" mean unresolved conflicts erode attitudes over time despite initial positivity.
Researchers suggest being aware of your nonverbal behaviors: smiling, leaning toward, or touching.
When it comes to couple communication, one of the key features that can promote a good relationship is the feeling that your partner not only hears you but listens. Yet, sometimes, you feel that the listening part of the equation has gone missing.
You can see it in your partner's eyes. As you prattle on about what happened to you during the day in your late-night chats, the blank stare is all too sadly evident. You're tempted to snap your fingers to see if your partner is registering anything you do or say.
It doesn't seem that this impression you have is just in your imagination. After retelling in great detail the conversation you had with one of your close friends that day, your partner suddenly asks what you'd like to have for dinner tomorrow. Where was your partner, mentally, during this supposed "chat"?
It can be frustrating to have this lack of resonance by your partner occur daily, but it is also puzzling. Is there something you're doing wrong? Or has your partner lost interest in you? Or perhaps you should forget the whole thing and assume this is a temporary glitch?
Automatic Partner Attitudes and Communication
According to Radboud University's Ruddy Faure and colleagues (2023), most people in solid relationships do tend to tamp down negative experiences if they basically love their partner. This sort of "motivated reasoning" can work to your benefit, but it can also come with dangers. If you continue to silence the notifications that your partner is growing increasingly distant, the long-term effects could snowball and potentially lead one or both of you to decide to end things.
It can be helpful to understand what might be driving motivated reasoning. According to the Dutch-led research team, people can hold "automatic partner attitudes" or unconscious associations with their closest partner. An automatic attitude is one that, by definition, can't be expressed. However, its presence manifests in various behaviors, thoughts, and feelings.
Cognitive theories of depression, by way of analogy, propose that people's automatic and dysfunctional attitudes (such as assuming they're flawed) can trigger negative attitudes about the self, the world, and the future.
Driving automatic partner attitudes, the Radboud U. researchers maintain, are even deeper psychological processes derived from your attachment style. If you constantly feel unsure about your partner's affections, i.e., are insecurely attached, you'll look at your partner as someone who constantly has one foot out the door, ready to exit the relationship.
A second reason people's automatic partner attitudes can turn south is that, over time, the balance of positive and negative experiences deteriorates due to continued unresolved conflicts. Previous research shows that one bad day isn't enough to upend positive partner attitudes.
As the authors note, a two-week diary study showed that these attitudes "became more positive (or negative) as people repeatedly experienced less (or more) jealousy, smoother (or more demanding) communication, and more (or less) positive, responsive behavior" over the 14 days. One very significant negative event (e.g., a breakup) can bring negative partner associations down by at least 35 percent when measured quantitatively.
From Automatic to Deliberate: 5 Ways to Be Sure You're Heard
The Faure et al. study reviewed a larger literature on automatic partner attitudes and how these explain, predict, and promote a couple's functioning and overall well-being. Honing in on the factors that influence automatic partner attitudes, based on this study, can provide you with concrete suggestions to improve the chances that your communication can be restored to a two-way street.
Build those positive associations. Automatic attitudes come about, in part, through associations between you and unpleasant experiences (i.e., conflict). You may have inadvertently created one of those unfortunate associations. Maybe in your retelling of your day's experiences, the situation in which your partner zoned out on you, there was a bit too much cynicism or criticism of other people. It can be cathartic to dish out on the people you're annoyed with, but this could backfire if your partner doesn't want to hear only about problems.
Check out your nonverbal behaviors. The Dutch authors cite evidence that body language is an important contributor to how your partner reacts to you. Smiling, leaning toward your partner, and touching can be powerful in their own right, apart from your words.
Don't overthink things. In what may seem completely counterintuitive, Faure's research has shown that people who think less can be more forgiving of a partner's transgressions. This is where "running on autopilot" could be good as you let positive emotions take hold. Worrying too much about whether your partner is really listening to you could send out inadvertent negatively-tinged body language.
Work on your attachment issues. Your partner may be listening more than you think. As the authors note, "Early experiences with a romantic partner, and particularly those involving trust, more strongly determine automatic partner attitudes." Constantly suspecting that someone isn't listening to you because you lack this basic sense of trust can creep in as a form of suspiciousness, which in and of itself can exacerbate negative associations that your partner has formed with you.
Become less predictable. Mix up your time together so that you're not on infinite replay, revisiting the same topic of conversation at every opportunity. Find ways to build some of those pleasant associations through mutually enjoyable activities, and these can become new and more engaging topics of conversation.
Putting These Five Steps in Action: Cautions
With these five suggestions in mind, it's still important to point out that all of this self-scrutiny could blind you to the possibility that your partner is preoccupied with their stress. You've been recounting in great detail all the (unhappy) events of your day, but maybe it's worth taking a break to check out how your partner's day went.
Give them a chance to chime in, and then show, via body language and responsive questions, that what your partner says is important to you. Rather than ask, "Why aren't you listening to me?" for example, ask, "How did all of that make you feel?"
It's also important, on the other hand, not to get too down on yourself. Although the focus of these suggestions is on ways you can promote more positive associations in your partner's automatic partner attitudes, becoming too self-critical can only add to your strain and ultimately start to eat away at the quality of your relationship.
You want to be heard, but it's also important that your partner is willing to meet you halfway. Sharing some of these ideas with your partner could promote excellent restorative dialogue.
To sum up, the feeling of not being heard can be isolating and upsetting. By working on creating positive associations with your partner, both of you will be more likely to turn your interactions into true two-way streets.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.