How to Create a Couples Communication Playbook Together

Couple sits on bench, turned toward each other, conversing deeply. Body language relaxedWhen working with couples, the first thing I assess is their communication, as this is usually a defining reason why they have walked into my office. Without clear boundaries and guidelines around communication, it is virtually impossible to dig into any issue. The WAY a person says something always trumps WHAT they are saying. In other words, STYLE always trumps CONTENT. Learning to communicate—and to communicate with care—may seem like a trite concept, but it is the cornerstone of a healthy relationship.

We learn to communicate from our caregivers. Since we were each raised differently, our communication playbooks are all different, too. When two people enter into a relationship, there are usually different playbooks in action fighting to emerge as THE playbook.

If, for example, you grew up in a family that was loud and boisterous, you likely learned to do one of two things: become loud and boisterous or avoid loud and boisterous. The way you adapted to that communication style became a part of your communication playbook.

My goal is to help you and your partner come up with a common, collaborative playbook that feels good for both of you. Here are just a few suggestions and recommendations:

  1. There MUST be care in your words. This is a deal-breaker. Figuring out how to speak with care when angry, sad, shamed, or guilty requires vulnerability and accountability. It takes mindfulness and practice.
  2. Overt no-nos: yelling, name-calling, bullying, threatening, and attacking.
  3. Covert no-nos: nagging, pouting, stonewalling, lying, being a martyr, and zingers.
  4. No sarcasm. Sarcasm is a passive-aggressive (indirect) way of saying what you feel without being clear and direct. The Greek translation for the word sarcasm is “tearing of the flesh.” It is hurtful. Being funny and using sarcasm are two different things. If something is funny, you both laugh. If it is sarcastic, chances are only one of you is amused.
  5. Don’t start talking about an issue until you have “contracted” with the other person. Too many times, you may begin delving into an issue before the other person is ready, able, and available. It may be as simple as, “I would like to talk about ‘X’; are you available?” Contracting sets the tone, creates intention from both parties, and lets you know you’re both present and attentive. If, for example, you want to talk in bed at night, be certain the other person is agreeable and not falling asleep. Setting a time limit is another aspect of contracting. If it’s not a good time to talk, in addition to saying so it’s a good idea to provide some alternative time options. 
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    Having rules and guidelines both partners have had a hand in shaping allows for more accountability and collaboration, which can increase satisfaction levels when working through issues.
  6. If a conversation gets heated, take a time-out. If you take a time-out, it is your responsibility to say when you will come back to finish the conversation. Leaving a conversation without a restart time may be interpreted as abandonment and lack of care. If someone needs a time-out, respect it, stop the conversation, and don’t push or punish. Knowing there is a restart time may allow you to look at what has happened to get the two of you into a time-out situation. Both parties should ask, “What is my part in the dysfunction in this conversation?” and be willing to own it when you resume. It’s much easier to point a finger at the other person, but does nothing to get closer to solutions.
  7. Listen. You will know you are listening if you can tell the other person what they just said. If you are evaluating their content and waiting for your turn, you aren’t listening. Think of listening as the most caring thing you can do for your partner. Put your needs on hold. Try to gain an understanding of their perspective. Communication is not about convincing. Listening is an act of love.
  8. Remember, you are on the same team. When teammates have conflict, the energy of the conversation is much different than when adversaries go at it. Again, it goes back to care with your words. Sometimes I will ask, “Would you talk to your next-door neighbor the way you are talking to your partner right now?” This is actually a parenting tip from Foster Cline’s book Parenting with Love and Logic, but I use it frequently with couples. It’s called the “good neighbor policy” and is an effective and easy way to help reset communication during a conflict.

These are just a few suggestions for helping couples create a common communication playbook. Having rules and guidelines both partners have had a hand in shaping allows for more accountability and collaboration, which can increase satisfaction levels when working through issues.

Reference:

Cline, F. (2006). Parenting with love and logic. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress Publishing.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jimmy G. Owen, LPC, CDWF, therapist in Dallas, Texas

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • rodrigo

    rodrigo

    April 3rd, 2017 at 9:35 AM

    One of the biggest problems that my wife and i face is how we actually deal with our problems. I am the loud want to talk it out kind of guy where she simply wants to retreat and hide what she is feeling. I know that this is because of the ways that we experienced childhood differently growing up but it is really throwing up a lot of obstacles in our marriage. I just want to go ahead and get it all out but she needs that time to herself and I guess that if the truth be told I ma not all that fond of giving her that time because that isn’t what feels natural to me. Sounds like a compromise of some sort is in order huh?

  • Jimmy

    Jimmy

    April 3rd, 2017 at 2:50 PM

    rodrigo,
    Creating a playbook you both feel good about will require stepping out of your ‘familiar’ zone. Growing and changing behavior can be difficult. Some of the suggestions listed will feel forced and unspontaneous, but that’s a part of becoming mindful and getting off of the auto-pilot that isn’t working. Good luck! JGO

  • Edward

    Edward

    April 9th, 2017 at 7:42 PM

    This is very relevant advice for anyone seeking to improve the quality of their relationship.

  • Jennifer S

    Jennifer S

    April 3rd, 2017 at 9:47 PM

    It is so true that honest, open communication on an emotional level is critical in a relationship. I wish my husband and I had seen someone like Jimmy years ago instead of taking nearly 40 years to figure this out!

  • Mary Ann

    Mary Ann

    April 4th, 2017 at 7:28 AM

    Well Rodrigo, that is the same in my relationship. Sometimes people need that time out because if that time out is not taken you end up saying way too many things that never needed to be said. I do find out that as I get older I need more time to think about things. We have done all of the above; yelling, name-calling, bullying, threatening, and attacking, nagging, pouting, stonewalling, lying, being a martyr, and zingers. You name it, it’s been done. It’s been difficult to control my thoughts and not BLURT out; but I do need time to process the first comment and not immediately feel that I have been threatened in some sort of fashion. Vulnerability is KEY. But who wants to be that vulnerable? We’ve been practicing different techniques, sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but each time we learn something about ourselves and can reflect on why it keeps happening. We are not perfect, but I have to say, we do try and even though it is SLOW moving, we have not given up yet. Sometimes I think people give up to quick and don’t learn the techniques and just carry all that they have not learned into the next relationship. It may be best to practice with a partner that may not be your LIFE partner, but is willing to work on issues together. And who knows, that person may end up being the person after all.

  • Todd

    Todd

    April 4th, 2017 at 7:33 AM

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Jimmy!

  • Kelly

    Kelly

    April 4th, 2017 at 7:42 AM

    It doesn’t get much better than Jimmy! He is an exceptional listener and truly compassionate person- easy to talk to and solution-oriented . . . great guy!

  • rodrigo

    rodrigo

    April 4th, 2017 at 8:19 AM

    That familiarity is what is killing both of us because these are the things that we are not only used to handling things but probably the way we saw our parents working things out too. It feels like you are up against a wall,, thinking that this person doesn’t like who you are and wants to change you, but I know I have to step back a minute and remember that she probably feels the exact same way that I do.

  • Patti L

    Patti L

    April 4th, 2017 at 11:16 AM

    Great article. I like the idea of taking a pause and then coming back to it. Sometimes we just need a break in the argument and can get some perspective when we take a break.

  • Suzy M

    Suzy M

    April 4th, 2017 at 1:56 PM

    Jimmy Owen is a genius!!

  • Jim Sherrill

    Jim Sherrill

    April 5th, 2017 at 5:05 AM

    The eight tools listed above are simple, yet very effective and have enabled me to achieve significant progress relative to my communication skills.

  • Josh G

    Josh G

    April 5th, 2017 at 7:46 AM

    Great food for thought and use! Will work on this.

  • Barbara

    Barbara

    April 5th, 2017 at 10:27 AM

    Excellent suggestions for couples seeking to improve their communication.
    Thanks, Jimmy for your insights.

  • Benjamin

    Benjamin

    April 6th, 2017 at 3:26 AM

    It took a very long time but I finally realized that it takes two to have an argument and I can choose not to play. Once I realized that, it became much easier to instead have a conversation. Great point, Jimmy, that we’re on the same team. Needing to be ‘right’ all the time can lead to a very shallow triumph as a relationship is destroyed.

  • Wanda

    Wanda

    April 6th, 2017 at 4:40 AM

    The tools are excellent for communication and just checking yourself. And so is the author ❤️

  • Sue

    Sue

    April 9th, 2017 at 11:19 AM

    Excellent post, Jimmy and great tips. I especially like your suggestion to contract with your partner and make sure the timing works when you want to delve into a serous issue or discuss feelings or conflicts. Time outs are great for adults, too, not just children. We all need pauses to let our nervous systems calm down when things get heated. Thanks for taking the time to write this post, Jimmy!

  • Autumn

    Autumn

    April 9th, 2017 at 4:37 PM

    This playbook is great and provides some great reminders of how we should treat those we love. When I have followed these tips in my marriage, our communication is more effective and helps us work through difficult situations easier. Thanks for the good counsel.

  • Rob

    Rob

    April 29th, 2017 at 7:01 PM

    Spot on advice. It makes a world of difference for us.

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