Everyone knows that communication is key in relationships and yet many romantic partners struggle with communication. Difficult discussions quickly devolve into arguments and name-calling. People fail to articulate their thoughts and feelings and then get frustrated when their partners don’t understand them. Through my personal experiences in relationships, hearing about the experiences of my friends, and doing couples therapy with a range of couples, it is clear to me that many people do not know how to communicate in clear and constructive ways with their partners. Despite good intentions, people fall short in their communication and this can derail relationships. In honor of Valentine’s Day and the desire most of us have for healthy relationships this post includes my recommendations for how to begin communicating with your partner in healthy ways.
1. Know that Your Partner Cannot Read Your Mind
One of the things that derails communication in romantic relationships is people believing that their partner should be able to know what they are thinking and feeling without having to be told. No matter how close and connected you and your partner are, they cannot read your mind. Understanding this fact will save you a lot of grief. People often feel like there is something wrong with their partner or relationship if their partner doesn’t know exactly what is bothering them. Understanding that you must clearly express your feelings, desires, and needs in order for your partner to know them is an important first step in communicating constructively.
2. Identify How You are Feeling
Another issue that presents a challenge to constructive communication is not knowing how you feel. The emotions we have in relationships are often mixed and can be difficult to tease apart. Slowing down to reflect on how you are feeling so that you can clearly articulate your thoughts and emotions to your partner is important. We often express our anger more than any other emotion because anger can be energizing and makes us feel powerful. However, when we look underneath our anger, we often find hurt and pain. It is important to identify and share these softer emotions with our partners. Picture this: you are upset with your partner because they cancelled a date at the last minute in order to do something else. This probably makes you feel angry, hurt, disappointed, and rejected. Most of us would move quickly to expressing our anger in one way or another. This is likely to start an argument with our partners when what we’re really wanting is for them to apologize and empathize with our feelings of disappointment. We are more likely to get the responses that we hope for if we share the more tender emotions we are experiencing.
3. Make Requests instead of Complaints
It is easier to complain than it is to make requests for what we would like to see change. Most of us respond by getting defensive when someone complains about our behavior and rarely do complaints inspire us to improve. When you have a complaint that you would like your partner to address, see if you can take some time to think about how to frame your complaint into a request. For example, if you are frustrated that your partner doesn’t help you cook meals that you share, instead of saying “you never help out in the kitchen,” try saying “Remember when we cooked together a couple of months ago? I really appreciated that. Do you think you could cook with me more often?”
4. Share Concerns before they Boil Over
Some people are prone to waiting until they are really angry or upset to bring up their concerns with their partner. This can be related to assuming that your partner can read your mind and should know what they do that upsets you. It is important to address concerns you have with your partner before they boil over and you are really frustrated by the situation. This will give your partner the chance to remedy the issues in a timely fashion and make it more likely that you can have a constructive conversation about your concern instead of an argument.
5. Know when to Share and when to Hold Back
On the other end of the continuum is the tendency to share every concern and complaint that you have, every time you have it. To let your partner know every time you are not perfectly happy with their behavior. This can also wear at the fabric of the relationship. It can be helpful to identify when your partner has done something that really should be addressed versus when they have done something that is annoying but you can let go of. Further, it is important to recognize when you are bothered by your partner’s behavior because what they are doing is objectively troublesome and when you are upset because of your own personal history and sensitivities. It is reasonable to ask your partner to be considerate of your personal sensitivities and it is important to acknowledge your own struggles when you do this.
6. Address Concerns Outside of an Argument
Arguments between partners are often focused on a specific situation that has occurred. If you notice a pattern that is frustrating or leading to arguments, it can be helpful to have a calm conversation about this issue outside of the context of an argument. When we argue it is difficult to listen to what our partner is saying. During arguments we are often focused on proving ourselves right. Our amygdala (emotional part of the brain) takes over from our prefrontal cortex (thinking/planning part of the brain) and it is hard to think through what’s happening and talk calmly. Some people get emotionally flooded during arguments and shut down. I recommend pausing arguments if they are getting out of control and agreeing on a time to come back to the discussion later.
7. Be Open to Feedback
Most of us focus on what we want our partner to change and are resistant to feedback about what our partners want us to change. I encourage you to be open to feedback from your partner, just as I’m sure you would like your partner to be open to what you have to say. When your partner expresses a concern see if you can take it in without getting defensive. Even if you don’t agree with everything they have to say, see if you can find the truth in what they are communicating. Is this something you’ve heard from previous partners or other people in your life? If so, it may be useful feedback that will help you to better engage in your relationships.
8. Acknowledge the Positive
Our brains are programmed to focus on and remember the negative experiences we have. It is essential to intentionally turn our attention to positive aspects of our relationships, particularly after you’ve been with someone for a while. I encourage you to pay attention to and communicate with your partner about the things you appreciate about them and your relationship.