When Spouses (and Others) Don’t Listen …

You hear it all the time, at least if you’re in a profession such as mine—where people hire you for answers, objective perspective, advice or feedback.

One spouse or family member says the following about another:

‘When I tell him such-and-such, he ignores it. When you say the same thing, he listens.’

Why is this?

The offended spouse generally makes the mistake of taking it as a personal attack or offense. It’s understandable, but usually not true.

What’s the error involved in listening to the professional’s reasoning, but not the layperson’s?

First of all, it’s not necessarily an error. The husband who listens to the therapist, or doctor, or other person with expertise is assuming that person has knowledge and experience most people don’t have. That’s presumably (and hopefully) true.

The problem, most often, is a lack of communication. The wife who won’t listen to her husband but will listen when the therapist says the same thing might actually have thought her husband had a point. But she never told him so. She never said, for example, ‘What you’re saying makes sense. I can’t argue with your conclusion. But I’d like to run this by an expert, too. Or at least an objective and rational third party. I want to make sure we’re not missing something. Do you object?’

If the spouse takes offense at this, then it’s the spouse’s error. Why? Because conclusions can only be reached through a process of reasoning. Reasoning, especially in a complicated matter, means ensuring that you’re not unintentionally leaving out any relevant facts. ‘A, therefore B, therefore C. I agree that makes sense. But maybe there’s a D factor we’re missing?’ The point of the expert or objective third party would be to discover that, if so.

In a marital or romantic relationship, as well as with many friendships, problems develop more over what isn’t said than by what is said. Errors or ‘sins’ of omission rather than ones of commission are often the problem. They lead to mind-reading and conclusion-jumping.

Sometimes the spouse who won’t follow his partner’s recommendation but will follow the expert’s advice is, in fact, making an error. The error is placing authority over truth. Truth is truth, regardless of what an authority says. You don’t need a person with a degree to validate that you’re right, or to prove that you’re wrong.

What makes the expert’s expertise valuable is not some inherently different form of logic and reason that experts use, while laypeople do not. The most that an expert has to offer is greater experience and specialized knowledge about certain matters. This knowledge of detailed facts can be of immeasurable value—even life or death in the case of a qualified brain or heart surgeon, for example. But it doesn’t imply that the expert uses some different method of reason and logic from the one the rest of us use. And an expert in command of his knowledge should be both able and willing to convey it in layperson’s terms, when that’s required.

Consider the issue when it’s over something relatively obvious. ‘I’ve been telling my spouse to stop drinking for years. He wouldn’t listen. But after the doctor said he should quit, he’s finally taking steps to do so.’

This could mean that the alcohol-abusing spouse is assuming the doctor knows more about obvious truths than his own spouse—who lives with him, and sees in much greater detail how much he actually drinks and what the consequences are.

It could also mean that the doctor made the recommendation in a more respectful, objective and scientific way than the man’s wife did. Maybe if she had shown a little more respect for his difficulty, he would have listened sooner. Maybe he simply needed someone to say it nicely, while still firmly.

Another reason some people don’t listen to the ones they love? Low self-esteem. In other words: ‘I’m nothing special. I’m no mental giant. So anyone who’s dumb enough to love me can’t know what he/she is talking about, either.’ Rarely is this belief conscious. But it’s felt, and it’s acted on, just the same…by the person with low self-regard.

When someone loves you and has your best interests at heart, it’s hard for you to trust and believe them—if you don’t first love and respect yourself. When you love yourself and life along with your spouse, then it’s a lot easier to take the truth ‘ because the person speaking the truth is not only someone you love, but someone you respect.


Be sure to “friend” Dr. Hurd on Facebook. Search under “Michael Hurd” (Rehoboth Beach DE). Get up-to-the-minute postings, recommended articles and links, and engage in back-and-forth discussion with Dr. Hurd on topics of interest.