Two years ago, my girlfriend and I broke up. We had been together about three years.
The end had been building for months, argument after argument. This breakup would have been like any other -- which, in my case, always involved wagging the finger of blame and walking away feeling more victimized than enlightened.
Only this time it was different. This time I knew it was my fault. I had made promises I didn't keep, had thought only of myself and rarely of her, had been nasty, you name it. But I'd made these mistakes before. And then I remembered my first major breakup, almost a decade ago to the day, and the causes were no different from what they were a decade later.
Just a couple of weeks after the more recent breakup, it was Valentine's Day. I sat at home, alone. Not so much lonely or pining over my last relationship, just mad at myself for letting this happen. I promised myself I would do everything in my power to spend the next Valentine's Day happily, and that I would learn my lessons.
To cope, I decided to write a play. It would be about the host of a talk show whose fiancee leaves him. To learn what he might have done wrong -- not only in this relationship, but in the ones before it -- he would turn to his ex-girlfriends for help, putting his interviewing skills to good use.
On a personal level, I wanted to do the same, to ask my exes exactly what I had done wrong. I wanted to learn from my mistakes, too.
However, I had to admit that over the course of time, I had already learned the answers to questions I might ask about every complaint, every plea, every argument.
As I developed the story, which I came to call "Survey," I realized that this relationship and many before it, came down to one simple problem: I never listened. Not to what they wanted, or their concerns, or their grievances, or even to the simple stuff, like how their day was, what they liked, or even to a simple anecdote.
What started out essentially as therapy for me became a symposium, especially for couples, and the consequences of failing to listen. As I wrote "Survey," I discovered my own six top tips for listening. You may find this advice useful, too:
1. Ignore yourself. If you're hearing yourself think, then you're not hearing someone else's words.
2. Suppress your insecurities. There's no good reason for getting defensive. Not everything intended as conversation or constructive criticism is an attack.
3. Keep eye contact -- not to show someone you're listening, but because if you're looking at them, there's a better chance that you actually are.
4. Process what you're hearing. Just because someone said something to you doesn't mean it requires an immediate response.
5. Paraphrase the other person's words, and play it back to her or him. Let someone know what you think you're hearing.
6. Know who you're talking with. You listen differently depending on the person you're listening to.
I've followed my own advice, and now I think I'm a better listener. I've made more friends, they invite me out more often than before and share more with me in conversations. My family has told me that I'm more pleasant to be around, that I'm more easygoing.
My relationships with my friends and family are stronger now than ever. And when the time comes, my romances will be stronger, too. Maybe the secret to Valentine's Day isn't Cupid, bouquets of flowers, giant teddy bears, cards or boxes of chocolates. Maybe the key is keeping your ears open.
Michael Brody lives in Forest Hills. The one-night engagement of his play, "Survey," is at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15, at the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center, 31-10 Thomson Ave., Long Island City. Admission is free.