She said, "If you can't listen to me, if you can't hear what I'm saying, then I don't want to be with you."
She was right. I couldn't really hear what she was saying. I didn't want to. Her story was painful and scary. It was destroying the image I had of her as a smart, thoughtful, driven woman I wanted to marry. Late that afternoon we both wanted to talk again about what she had told me. But I said things that had the hollow ring of sanctimony. I made lame suggestions: that she must have already reckoned with what had happened that night if she could talk to me about it, and perhaps she could confront the guy now and hash over what had occurred. I even tried to respond with a college story of my own—about being drunk and kicking a woman's door open rather than knocking, because I was under the mistaken impression that such violence might be seen as charming. But nothing I said was right—least of all that last response. This is the worst way of listening—as if someone else's story is little more than a cue to tell one's own. We broke up a few months later.
Now I'm involved with another woman, and I know she has stories that she must tell for us to grow closer, to trust each other, to be more in love. When she tells me a story that changes my idea of her, I work against physically turning away from her or folding my arms, and I don't make her go over the story again, as if there's a chance that it might change. I know that soon she'll tell me the details of the bad times she had in Minneapolis during her first marriage, when her husband worked long hours in a health clinic and was abusive to her at the end of his bad days.
There are so many things I don't want to do: I don't want to get furious at her ex-husband and find that my anger at him keeps me from being calm with her. And I don't want to get upset with her for not leaving him more quickly. I don't want to interrupt her and ask her how she could love such a man. I don't want to feel disappointment or fear or mourning for all that's happened to her in her past and worry over how it might affect our future. I've already made those mistakes. Though I can't explain them perfectly, I know that they grow out of a primary male insecurity, and they fight against my ability to listen.
Now, when I hear her, I'll try to take in who she wants to be in our present. I probably won't stop myself from trying to divine what she might expect from me. I won't offer platitudes, reimaginings, or shrugged shoulders. I'll try to listen to the stories of her past as if they're something that's both a part of and apart from our present. And I'll attempt to love her no matter what as she changes and becomes more complex for me. I might only say, "I'm sorry for what happened then, and I'm happy you're here with me now." I hope she'll tell me that she knows I'm listening. And I think we'll both be aware that listening is as important an act as telling, that both acts are vital, and utterly revealing.
NEXT: How to listen compassionately