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Relationship Fails and Wins: How to Actively Listen Without Getting Taken Advantage of

Updated on August 26, 2014

Relationship Fails: Dumping and Repressing Anger

Life is stressful, can we just agree? So it's normal for us to feel anger and to bring that anger into our relationships. That sounds like it should be a bad thing. And it is if anger isn't expressed or handled properly. Anger dumped on others is a major relationship fail.

But, ironically, so is not communicating anger at all. Bottled negative emotion turns septic. It seeps out in ugly and passive-aggressive ways. When people stew over old hurts, and don't release them, the anger has nowhere to go.

Sometimes, anger that was originally directed elsewhere, becomes personal. An objective or public issue starts getting played out on the subjective, private stage of intimate relationships. In already shaky relationships, repressed rage can even turn vindictive. Innocent people get punished for things they had nothing to do with. Children helplessly watch family members hurt each other. They in turn stuff their feelings. They pass on generations of toxic anger. It becomes a vicious cycle, figuratively and literally.

But there is hope. If you learn to communicate and share problems in healthy ways, it can actually make your relationships stronger. Venting anger safely requires two things: respect on the part of the one venting and active listening on the other's part. Here's how to show empathy without getting taken advantage of.

Happy Couples Communicate


Actively Listen

Active listening requires several things: compassion, support, trust, empathy, subjective objectivity, reflection and response.

* Compassion. ALWAYS take your spouse's side, even if you think she should have handled it differently. I know, that sounds extreme. But she's already hurting, maybe feeling alone and harassed. It won't help the situation for you to defend the other side, but it will hurt her. You bat for the same team. She needs support.

* Ownership. Let each own his own feelings. Don't try to stifle or control each other. Don't shame. You aren't your partner's parent, nor moral compass. You don't get to decide how he should feel, think or respond.

* Non-judgmental empathy. You're not God. Don't advise or grill her about why she acted the way she did. So maybe she screwed up? You've screwed up too. We all have. Now is not the time to heckle or posture about what you would have done. It's easy to preach in retrospect, and much harder to practice when you're actually in the situation. Playing Devil's advocate is pompous and self-aggrandized. And it's downright cruel to hit her when she's vulnerable.

* Support. Unless he did something actionable, don't judge. Even then, don't. You weren't there to know what happened. Give him the benefit of doubt and remember that you're his ally, first and foremost. Just listen tolerantly and offer what help you can.

* Trust. Believe in her. Accept and affirm that no matter how awful the situation, she handled it the best he could. The person it was hardest for was her. She's probably already second-guessing her every move. Don't stress her further with your own fears and worries. Communicate your trust loud and clear. Maybe that seems a bit naive, but consider the end goal: that you both, as a couple, learn to handle problems maturely and cooperatively. She needs your trust, just as you need hers, to learn to trust herself.

* Subject objectivity. Put yourself subjectively and unequivocally on his side. But maintain internal objectivity. I don't mean second-guess his behavior. I don't mean micromanage. I mean don't personalize his anger. What he's sharing may be, probably is, very negative. But that doesn't mean it's aimed at you. Also, don't be afraid to ask objectively, for clarity. Don't question or undermine, but do seek to further understand his feelings.

* Patience tempered with reasonable limits. I know, listening to someone vent is about as pleasant and rectal surgery, no matter how justified they are. So practice patiently listening, but don't let it go on endlessly. You'll find yourself getting annoyed and losing tolerance.

Kiss and Make Up


Do Not Let Yourself Be Taken Advantage Of

All our discussion, so far, has been about healthy sharing of anger, not chronic rage, dumping or outbursts of anger. Those are destructive and must be treated differently. Having said that, let's acknowledge that most of us have erred on the latter side occasionally. Regardless, it's still dangerous and should not be tolerated. Unhealthy anger is also habit-forming. If you let people use you as a doormat, they will get used to wiping their feet on you. Here's how to prevent that happening.

* You set the parameters (not the person venting). You don't owe anyone your listening ear nor supportive shoulder. I can't over-emphasize what a privilege it is to be able to share with a loving person. Don't YOU forget either how generous you're being allowing it. I'm not saying to rub it in. But don't cut yourself short. You decide when it's convenient, when you're feeling up to it. Never let someone force you into it nor abuse your time and patience.

* Reflect and respond. Don't react. Respond to questions or requests for feedback. Share opinions if asked. If your partner's venting turns to dumping on you, don't engage. Say that you feel uncomfortable. Suggest you end the conversation and try again later.

* Empower don't enable. If angry dumping is your partner's MO, don't stand for it. Encourage her to find her own solutions. Don't let her use you as a toxic waste dump site.

* Respect yourself. Even if he only dumps on you occasionally, that's too often. Listening to someone vent is a gift of self and a privilege. Those who abuse need privileges revoked till they learn a little listener appreciation.

* Don't tippy-toe. Some of us are terrified of anger. We'll twist ourselves into pretzels to fix it so our loved ones don't have to. We agonize that this "upsets him" or "makes her mad." At the risk of sounding harsh, so? We all have triggers. Deal with yours and let your spouse deal with hers.

* Don't take responsibility. Detach. The problem essentially belongs to the one venting. Tell him you trust him to work it out. You can say 'I'm sorry that happened" but don't apologize for things you haven't done.

* Maintain boundaries. Set a time limit on the vent session. Some people can't stop venting once they start. If so, you might have to so it doesn't get out of control.

* Zero tolerance for vengeful anger. If your partner, at any time ever abuses or punishes, all bets are off. She doesn't need to vent. She needs counseling. Tolerating toxic rage doesn't help and will hurt. Avoid anger that's only looking for a sacrificial lamb to slaughter.

* Expect to reciprocate. The privilege of being to vent anger shouldn't be one-sided--one person doing all the venting and the other all the listening. If you're always good for listening ear, but it never seems to be there for you, you're being taken advantage of.

In summary, practice active listening, back and forth. Seek out and maintain balance. Show respect for yourselves and each other.

Self-Care Basics

Do you take care of yourself when listening? If not, what do you need to work on to avoid getting taken advantage of?

See results

Active Listening Habits

Which areas of active listening (if any) do you struggle with?

See results

27 Years Marriage Founded on These Principles

We've been married 27 years and are still learning, one day at a time, how to actively listen.
We've been married 27 years and are still learning, one day at a time, how to actively listen. | Source
What the Venting Partner Must Do
What the Listening Partner Must Do
What Both Must Do
Rant to, not at partner
Show respect
Focus on issues
Balance (one person shouldn't always listen while the other always vents)
Say thank-you
Maintain boundaries
Stay in control
Be patient
Share, don't bottle

Anger Venting Homework

  • Practice listening more than talking.
  • Communicate don't bottle.
  • Say thank-you for your partner's support.
  • Think before you speak.
  • Practice anger management therapies so you don't hurt your partner.


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