Ask Polly: How Do I Make My Boyfriend Listen?

Dear Polly,

I want to know how I can make my boyfriend a better listener.

It has happened several times that when I want to talk about something serious (the future, exes, fears, hopes, etc.) my boyfriend often gets distracted. It’s not like he means to hurt me — I think it’s just his nature, and possibly mild ADD — but it does hurt me.

I’m 24 and he will be 30 next year. We both see each other as potential life partners. But how can I be with someone who gets distracted by a squirrel when I’m telling him about my father’s funeral?

That’s the other thing: I have some serious things to tell him. My father was murdered when I was 14. It’s a story I haven’t shared with many people, but if this is the right guy (and by all other accounts, he is) then I want him to know.

My fear is that he will hurt me by not listening correctly. Basically, that he won’t listen well, or that he will be scared off, or will avoid the subject or get distracted or whatever. It has happened many times before and even though I’ve told him this hurts me, not much has changed.

Sometimes I feel like the mom when a serious subject gets brought up: If he gets distracted, I admonish him. Usually I say: Look, right now I just don’t care about buttering my bread roll/wiping crumbs out of my shirt/that castle that we’re about to pass because I’m in the middle of telling you something very important. Or I just say, never mind, you’re not listening. I’ll tell you some other time. He instantly apologizes and promises to change but then the same thing happens again and again. Recently I’ve felt like he’s trying so hard to listen that he’s almost playing a role.

Sometimes I even feel like I’m dragging him down when I keep trying to tell him these dark stories from my past. He’s a very positive, happy-go-lucky guy who comes from a balanced family. I’m a pretty strong, driven and balanced person as well (despise all the fucked up stories) but I need to talk and be heard, damn it. I think that a lot of the time he gets scared of these topics and makes distractions. But I can feel that he cares and wants to support me — just doesn’t know how.

So Polly: am I crazy for trying to change my boyfriend? Are you going to tell me to get a therapist? I realize I will want to get one some day, but I also want to figure out a way to share myself fully with the person I love without getting mad at him every time.

Van Gogh’s Girlfriend

Dear VGG,

I should warn you, this is one of those subjects that lights up every dark corner of my brain, causing me to spin out in a million directions. The hope of getting some small slice of concrete advice from whatever follows here is admittedly very dim, but I will try my best to bring it home. I WILL BRING THIS HOME.

Here we go. Most humans need a good listener in their lives. People want to be heard. Not distractedly half-heard and then interrupted, but heard. The desire to be heard is easily observed in small children, who magically turn into house-destructing demons the second you get on the phone, play Candy Crush, flip through a fucking magazine, etc. Kids who aren’t heard are like dogs who don’t get enough exercise. They will fucking shred the carpet to bits, if you let them.

In contrast, when you devote your full attention to a kid, and he or she suddenly realizes that you are really, truly paying attention, he/she will turn into a bouncy ball of entertaining brilliance. Which is amazing, unless it’s not your kid and/or you dislike kids in general, in which case it’s a fucking pain in the ass and you have to learn to ignore kids better.

Anyway. Same goes for human beings, right? But women, generally speaking (I KNOW YES I’M GENERALIZING I DO THAT), need a GREAT listener. We need to be heard, big time, or we droop and grow wilty.

And then there are smart women with lots to say who are also very sensitive and weird and analytical and incredibly talkative, who ALSO listen very closely. These women are often labeled “a little too intense.” We think way too much, and slice and dice everything under the sun like a Ginsu knife that’s been sharpened one too many times and is now capable of cutting a watermelon in half like it’s made of crepe paper.

And while it’s true that no one REALLY needs a knife that sharp, there we are, the sharpest fucking knives in the motherfucking drawer. I’m not saying we’re geniuses, ok? We’re just sharp sharp sharp and we want to cut and cut and cut until there’s nothing left to cut. We do shut up sometimes. Sometimes we’re downright quiet, and you can’t get us to talk even if you try. But every now and then, we want to bring up tough, tangled, difficult situations and memories and experiences, and we want to slice and dice that shit up and shine a light on this or that and dig deeper and wonder and ponder and maybe even cry some tears over some dusty old loss or some injury or even something bad that happened to someone else.

If this is a suitable description of you, VGG, and of you, reader, then you need to know something (in case you don’t already know it): YOU NEED A CHAMPION LISTENER IN YOUR LIFE.

Women (and ok, men, too) who have big digressive minds and lots of stories, who know how to entertain but also do need to be heard and understood very badly? We need champion listeners. We just do. And listen, a lot of us really do deserve champion listeners, too. Because we ourselves are champion listeners. We’re the ones who people call when they’re going through a tough breakup or divorce. We’re the ones who people lean on when they’re depressed or sick or injured or bereft. This makes the phone our enemies, honestly, because once we’re on the phone we could be on there for fucking EVER. We also have to be careful around email.

But when the shit truly hits the fan for someone? WE ARE THERE. We are there, and you can also depend on us to avoid making it ALL ABOUT US. We’re sensitive, so we try to behave appropriately. It took some work to learn this skill, but we learned it.

And if the people we count on, who are very close to us, don’t listen to us? We get weird. Sometimes half-assed listening makes us talk even more. Sometimes we start blaming people for OTHER, totally unrelated shit, because not being heard freaks us out. Sometimes we mope. Sometimes we start weeping over nothing, day after day. When we’re not heard, the world is off-kilter. A window is ajar and cold wind is pouring in. Our balance is off. We feel sick. We feel wronged. We feel and feel and feel and we have a lot to fucking say about it.

And if the people around us DO listen to us? If we get really lucky and we find a champion fucking listener out there in the world? Flowers bloom. The sun shines in, bright and strong. Birds sing happy little birdy songs. And — THIS IS IMPORTANT — we really don’t ask for much more than that. That’s the paradox of the digressive talky needy woman (or man). Give us a champion listener, here and there, and we’re good. Warm, dry, comfortable, happy. We will shut up and get ‘er done and take care of people and cook big meals and bring joy to the world.

Now, some big talky talkers in the world don’t look for a champion listener. They just write constantly. They write giant award-winning novels. Donna Tartt, are you listening? Probably not. Genius writer ladies with perfect, shiny bob haircuts and dark turns of mind don’t have time to listen, do they? They take care of fucking business and stay aloof and fabulous. God, how we love and envy the motherfuckers.

But for people like you and me? We have to write things down, non-genius things mostly, AND we have to go out into the world and find good listeners to lean on.

Here’s what happens when we find ok listeners and so-so listeners and pretty good listeners and even good listeners, who maybe don’t want to have really in-depth conversations very often: Trouble. Here’s what happens when we talk to people who SAY they like talking about their feelings but in practice, actually fucking hate it and will turn on us like a pit bull if we try to make them do it: Things get ugly. Here’s what happens when we start sleeping with someone who really doesn’t want to talk to us all that much, and sure as FUCK doesn’t want to hear us go on and on and on about something, even when we think we’re actually sort of uncovering important, smart shit along the way: We feel like shit. Things don’t work out. They might work out for a while, but eventually, things fall apart.

I had a boyfriend once who became distracted any time we were about to have a conversation. The music wasn’t quite right. It was time to make a second drink. The lighting was wrong. It was time to check something online. It was time to make a phone call. I spent LOTS of time sitting with a drink in my hand, watching him do anything in the world but talk to me. We’d even go out to a nice restaurant, and he’d get distracted by the waiter or the conversation at the next table. He always had a very clear reason for not listening, and when I pushed him to try harder, I was being massively insensitive. And when I did manage to get his attention OR I just pushed onward and delivered a monologue about something big and sweeping, that I thought was actually kind of heartfelt and inspired? He would get angry at me.

He may have been a champion listener for anyone else. I don’t know. But he did NOT WANT TO LISTEN TO ME TALK. He wanted me to shut up. It’s incredible how long it took me to wise up and figure that out.

The moral here is that even when you’re in love with someone and you feel reasonably good around them, if there are little signs that they don’t really want you to talk, and you know that you really NEED TO TALK? Then you’re pretty fucked.

I’m not saying that you, specifically, VGG, are fucked OR that your relationship needs to end right this minute. But you and all of the other sharp knives out there who want to fucking cut and slice and dice need to know something: You aren’t just being compulsive and nuts, with all that fucking analysis and talk. People will make you think that you are a lunatic, thanks to the fact that they don’t have a taste for such heaviness and they are, in fact, AFRAID OF IT.

SHARP KNIVES NEED TO KNOW THAT WANTING TO BE HEARD ISN’T A CRIME. If you want to truly be heard — and you’re not that relaxed about spending time with people who don’t like intensity or depth or long conversations about big important things — that doesn’t make you a pain in the fucking ass. That makes you a sharp fucking knife.

So my advice to most sharp knives is hold out for a champion listener. Like fairies or unicorns or dogs with great personalities, you have to BELIEVE in their existence for them to appear to you. If you slog through life dating one crappy listener after another, and you just assume that this is just one of the many ways women (and some men) are punished, brutally and repeatedly, for being made of sugar and spice and piss and vinegar, then you’ll have to simply endure being half-ignored and feeling like a weirdo with way too many ideas and feelings to ever express a small fraction of them. But I would strongly recommend taking a different path. I would strongly recommend BELIEVING that champion listeners exist, BELIEVING that you, as a champion listener, deserve to find one of them. One that looks nice.

You, VGG, don’t want to break up with your boyfriend. You want me to tell you how to train him to be a better listener. This isn’t a skill I seem to possess. You could try to get him into couples’ therapy with you, sure. I have occasionally said to past boyfriends, “I need an hour of your time. Then we can do whatever — watch a basketball game, go to a party, I don’t care. But right now I need to feel like I have your full attention. And I need to do this every now and then, or I start to feel really fucking shitty.”

BUT HONESTLY? Then we’d sit and talk and he’d focus really hard (just like you described, like an actor on a stage who’s pretending to be a sensitive listener) and then after exactly one hour he’d be all “FUCK LET ME OUT OF THIS PRISON!” But I’d STILL feel a little off and we’d go have dinner and he’d talk about light stuff and never return to the subject we discussed earlier and really, I’d still feel hungry for talk, for heavy lifting, for getting to the heart of things. I would ALWAYS HOPE that we could get right down to the fucking nitty gritty, but I’d always feel dissatisfied. Because when your dude doesn’t WANT to get down to brass tacks, when he’ll do anything to avoid doing just that, you’re basically never going to feel like your thirst is quenched.

Eventually, you become someone who talks too much. Because, when you never, ever have someone’s full attention, that’s what ends up happening.

A therapist who’s paid to listen closely to you will help, but he/she won’t solve this problem entirely for you. Nope. People will say “Why are you trying to make your boyfriend your therapist, VGG?” and “Why don’t you turn to your female friends for a good talking session?” But no. Sharp knives can have therapists and lots of amazing friends who listen, but if their partner refuses to listen, and they know they want a partner who understands them (or at least tries to) and listens closely (at least some of the time)? Then therapy and friends don’t magically make it all great. The partner who’s a bad listener can fuck things up.

As a partner, a champion listener is irreplaceable. My husband doesn’t have to work that hard, either. I just need to know that he wants to show up when I have important stuff to hash out. If I weren’t married to a great listener, I know I would be vaguely dissatisfied and pissy and I’d be hell to live with.

Not everyone is a sharp knife, which is probably a good thing. I have destroyed many a relationship over this issue. But now? I bask in gratitude. A huge piece of my happiness comes from aligning myself with someone who loves talking and likes heavy subjects but also has an edge and doesn’t talk about chakras, ever.

In my experience, it is excruciatingly difficult to try to get someone who doesn’t like heaviness to try to grapple with heavy shit. And look, I’ve known THERAPISTS who didn’t like heavy shit and didn’t REALLY like to listen. What people say about what they want and what they actually SHOW YOU that they want are often at odds. You don’t have to feel crazy just because you’re noticing a gap there.

Sharp knives need a lot. It’s OK to need a lot. When you need a lot and you ask for a lot, knowing that you can give it back? You get a lot.

You want a life that is full, VGG. You don’t want to feel lonely. You don’t want to feel ignored. You should try to speak from the heart, to tell him how much you need. Don’t be ashamed. You want to tell someone what you have inside, and you want to know that they’re paying attention. You don’t JUST want them to hear you. YOU WANT THEM TO FEEL YOU.

And to all the other sharp knives out there: If someone tells you that you make it ALL ABOUT YOU all the time, that you’re into drama, and really, you’re just trying to connect, to get to the truth, to share yourself, to hear someone else, to feel them, to let them in? If you know that you listen and you’re a good partner or a good friend, and you know when to shut up, and someone STILL says this to you, despite ample evidence that it’s simply not true? Don’t try harder with that person. When you’re trying to make deep connections in a world that is flinchy and dismissive of deep connections, sometimes you open your heart, and instead of getting love in return, someone will say you’re being a troublemaker.

They just don’t get it. They aren’t for you. Walk away. You have worlds inside you — swirling, colorful, mournful, generous, soaring, hopeful, searing, heartbreaking worlds. You cannot offer just a tiny slice of you. You cannot hold back the flood. You want to share those worlds. You are way too big, too complicated, too glorious and infinitely sad and unspeakably divine. You have to share all of it. Find someone worthy of all of it. Find someone who wants ALL OF IT.


Are you incapable of listening? Write to Polly today and wait forever for her to write back.

Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Jesslee Cuizon.