In our extensive work with couples, my husband David and I have found that a common issue for couples is feeling like they are not heard by their partner. And a lot of this has to do with familiarity: when one partner speaks about their personal life, the other partner will listen for a short moment and then immediately launch into giving advice on how to handle things differently. Would this be the case with an acquaintance or friend? Probably not.
The partner trying to “fix” the situation believes they are being helpful, but the impact is usually that their partner does not feel properly heard, or understood. And most often, what we want is support, an attentive ear, a "shoulder to cry on," as the saying goes. This dynamic becomes a vicious cycle, often leading to frustrations or arguments.
Let's stop for a second and realize that though this dynamic is destructive, it often stems from a place of good intentions. When we want to fix our partner’s issues, it's often because it is plain uncomfortable to see our partner feeling upset. Sometimes, without being aware of it, we want to find a solution for our partner’s issues to relieve ourselves from feeling uncomfortable with the emotions being expressed by someone we love.
That's why my husband and I have created a tool that we both recommend to couples. It is a communication method that helps create mindfulness, a sense of presence and genuine engagement when it comes to talking about what we call "non-partner" issues in the relationship ...
What this means is that it's a useful tool to communicate with your partner about their/your issues, not relationship issues. This can be about work, kids, friends or anything else that each partner may be dealing with individually. Ultimately, it makes each person feel heard and supported, and steers us away from wanting to "fix" things for our partner. We call it “holding the basket."
Here’s how "holding the basket" works.
1. Arrange a time with your partner for them to “hold the basket” for you.
If you have something you want to talk about, then you are "the basket loader." Be aware of your role in the dynamic, and invite your partner to talk to you with the intention of trying out this practice. If your partner is not available immediately, agree to a time as soon as possible and ideally within 24 hours. In short, avoid “dumping” on your partner without asking to arrange a time in advance.
2. The partner who is listening is “the basket holder," and should do just that.
You both imagine a basket sitting between you, and the talker’s communication filling the basket. This visualization helps the “holder” stay more emotionally neutral rather than “taking on” the emotions of the “loader” which can lead to feeling uncomfortable and the desire to fix our partners situation.
3. The "basket loader" can fill the basket with whatever is on his/her mind (within reason).
Be careful to not talk for too long. Even the best and most generous "basket holder" can become emotionally overloaded. Boundaries are important!
4. The "basket holder" can imagine the “download” from his/her partner going into the basket, not into himself/herself.
This will help shield you from absorbing the emotional field of your partner. Practice engaged detachment.
5. The "basket holder" can listen attentively, but also without identifying too much with the other person's issues.
Show your partner that you are listening by being attentive and present. This is about listening and contacting your partner’s feelings, not necessarily about you understanding. You may ask a few clarifying questions, but keep them minimal.
6. After the "basket loader" has finished, the two partners can discuss possible solutions.
That is, only if this is desired by both parties. If not, the "basket loader" can simply thank their partner for being available and engaged, and both can be done with the topic for now.
One of the advantages of this tool is that it contains the issues and prevents issues from dominating the day or evening. Let it go and let yourself become present in your relationship with your partner.
7. Once the "basket loader" is complete, the "basket holder" can contact their partner's emotional field.
This is the most vital step. Use statements such as, “I get how hard that would be for you,” “I understand how you would feel angry,” “I hear how hurt you are,” “That does sounds frustrating!” or “Wow, I get how you would feel sad about that.” These types of statements will help create a feeling of engagement and being listened to.
8. Do not go into solutions until and unless permission is given.
Solutions can be offered after the download is complete and permission is granted. "Solution-talk," as we call it, is important in couple relationships and is a way that partners can assist each other and create a sense of teamwork. But sometimes your partner doesn’t need solution-talk; sometimes, they might not even want it at all, and just need to feel heard.
We encourage you to share this tool with your partner and have fun in the process. We guarantee that if you do, you will both feel more attentive to your relationship, and emotionally connected to one another.
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