How to Improve Communication with Your Partner—Instantly

Two people dressed in autumn outerwear talk while walking along tree-lined pathYou’ve no doubt heard the saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” But the idea we can or even should be invulnerable to the power of language, and to the things others say to us, is highly unrealistic. This is particularly true for intimate relationships.

Even well-spoken, kind individuals who have no problem chatting pleasantly at holiday parties, running charity events, or engaging colleagues in the boardroom can easily lose their fluency, sensitivity, and charm when it comes to communicating with those closest to them. Hot-button topics such as sex, money, in-laws, parenting styles, and political views can easily become conversational danger zones, where words are used to defend and protect.

Worse than simple miscommunication, the unconscious, reflexive ways we express ourselves in our closest relationships can foreclose the possibility of a productive exchange. It’s no wonder couples have a hard time separating the wheat from the chaff of what is meant from what is said in some of their most significant discussions.

In the 1960s, psychologist Marshall Rosenberg noticed an overriding societal tendency to use language as a means of domination and control rather than as a way to connect to others with shared human needs. This tendency to lead with judgment rather than curiosity gets in the way of our ability to empathize and collaboratively problem-solve.

Unfortunately, as children many of us were taught to suppress, deny, or minimize our feelings and needs. As adults, our lack of self-empathy often correlates to challenges with partners. If we’re unable to respectfully tune into our innermost truths, how can we be open to another?

Take a look at your own experience. How often did authorities in your life—parents, teachers, political figures, bosses—admit to the relative nature of their assumptions about “the right way to do things”? How often do you consider the possibility friends, partners, and even your own children have a right to do things their way, or at least to have their way understood and considered?

Authoritarian, self-serving power dynamics virtually always begin to play out in our relationships unless we question our assumptions and open up to our own and others’ underlying humanity. In the imago therapy model, far from heralding the end a relationship, power struggles are viewed as the point of departure into deeper self-awareness and more authentic relating, an opportunity to turn around and look at ourselves.

Unfortunately, as children many of us were taught to suppress, deny, or minimize our feelings and needs. As adults, our lack of self-empathy often correlates to challenges with partners. If we’re unable to respectfully tune into our innermost truths, how can we be open to another?

Learning to communicate respectfully is invariably a humbling process because it entails giving up the false sense of control authoritarian language can so often afford us. It means giving up our advantages over others, our skills as analysts, lecturers, and fortune-tellers, and stepping into a shakier zone of feelings, needs, and vulnerabilities. It means asking for things even though we may not get what we want and making it safe for our partner to show up with their truth, even when they’ve hurt or disappointed us. It means resisting the impulse to view our partners through a lens of judgment—as bad, mean, or wrong—because they haven’t accommodated us in some way.

Nobody has to be rewarded or punished for the outcome of a truly honest discussion. Stepping forward with courage and admitting our interdependence and vulnerability is itself a victory.

Here are a few useful techniques for improving communication:

1. Before you talk to your partner about a difficult topic, try voicing these statements from David Richo’s book How to Be an Adult in Relationships (either out loud or to yourself):

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  • I’m paying close attention to you now.”
  • “I accept you as you are in this moment.”
  • “I allow you to be yourself.”
  • “I appreciate you for what you have been and are.”
  • “I have real affection for you, no matter what.”

2. Use this simple formula for expressing your feelings about a partner’s behavior and making a request for them to change:

“I feel __________ when you __________ (specific behavior). Long before I met you, my past experiences made me vulnerable to this behavior in the following way: __________. What I would like for you to do instead is __________. This will help me to feel more __________.”

3. Use active listening. Pay attention and reflect back, paraphrased, what you heard your partner say. For example:

“I hear you saying you feel angry when I come home late without texting you. Long before you met me, your past experiences made you vulnerable to this behavior when you never knew what time your father would pick you up from school. What you want me to do instead is to call or text you in advance and let you know I’m going to be delayed. This will help you to feel safe, happy and calm. Is that it?”

4. Keep a list of the things you love about your partner and your relationship in your purse or wallet. Read through your list often and especially before approaching your partner to talk about a difficult topic.

If you want support in learning to communicate more effectively with someone you care about, contact a licensed therapist.

Reference:

Richo, D. (2002). How to be an adult in relationships: The five keys to mindful loving. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Alicia Munoz, LPC, therapist in Falls Church, Virginia

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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  • Ada

    Ada

    January 12th, 2017 at 6:52 AM

    I am an eye roller, I don’t even realize that this is something that I do, but it makes my husband crazy because I think that he sees this as a rebuke to anything that he is saying but I honestly have no idea I am doing it.
    It has caused quite a few arguments in our marriage.

  • Roxann B.

    Roxann B.

    April 23rd, 2018 at 9:34 PM

    Actually. your husband is reading your nonverbal message. There is an entire science of nonverbal messages. There are many good books on this subject. It might be good idea to ask your husband to tape a conversation that you have and then let you watch it together. Listen to how yournonverbals make him feel. He should say, when you say….. I feel….
    But you also need to say, when you say or do …. I feel….
    Really listen to hear not to be heard!!!

  • Alicia

    Alicia

    April 24th, 2018 at 9:23 AM

    What a great idea, Roxann B. Being able to deconstruct a discussion in this way is a huge learning opportunity and could provide really useful feedback for both people if undertaken non-defensively.

  • Alicia

    Alicia

    January 12th, 2017 at 8:55 AM

    Our body language is often unconscious and being aware of it is the first step to connecting with our underlying feelings. In that sense, it can help when partner’s point out what they see us doing if we’re open to hearing feedback. Tuning in to what’s going on for you in the “eye-rolling moment” will give you information about your inner experience. Sharing this with your husband could begin a more vulnerable conversation vs. a reactive/defensive one.

  • erica gl

    erica gl

    January 13th, 2017 at 7:47 AM

    Why does it seem to be so hard to just be a loving person?

  • Cara

    Cara

    January 14th, 2017 at 12:26 PM

    For me it is always so simple. Just having someone look at me and put down their phone or away from the TV screen that is all I need to make a difference for me.
    For others it could be something that is much bigger than that but to have their undivided attention on me? That makes a huge difference in my mind,

  • Alicia

    Alicia

    January 19th, 2017 at 12:01 PM

    Having someone’s undivided focus is a luxury these days when we’re often competing for attention with iphones, ipads, and other gadgets. In author Gary Chapman’s framework of ‘The Five Love Languages,’ you seem to thrive on having true quality time with your partner, when they’re fully present and in the moment with you.

  • Jenn

    Jenn

    January 16th, 2017 at 7:09 AM

    It helps to always be able to keep an open mind when you are having any conversation with your partner and to always have the ability to admit when you have been wrong and to be able to say you are sorry. I think that these three or so things often get couples so down on their relationship together and when this has gone on for years then the expectation becomes that the marriage is not going to work out anymore.

    I think that if you can take more time in the beginning and then as the relationship progresses to be willing to admit that you have been wrong or that you were not willing to hear an argument from both sides, I think that when you do these things then they are the little things that can help to build a strong foundation for the two of you.

  • cal

    cal

    January 17th, 2017 at 8:21 AM

    just remember to pay attention to the little things
    it’s all about the little things

  • Eloise

    Eloise

    January 18th, 2017 at 11:19 AM

    Too many times I have said things and immediately regretted saying it but then once it is out there you can never take it back.

    Sometimes it is best to take a moment and THINK about what you are getting ready to say before you allow the words to come out of your mouth.

  • Zak

    Zak

    January 19th, 2017 at 11:12 AM

    I think that because I was raised by a man who was always telling me to man up and pretty much implied that it was not manly to show emotion, well I took all that to heart and now even when I want to express more of how I feel I find that I have a hard time doing it because it goes against what I was always taught as a kid about being a man. I hate it that there are still so many things I don’t feel like I can openly share because of how he made me feel about doing that. To him it was much more appropriate to stifle those feelings than to ever let them out.

  • Tammy

    Tammy

    December 22nd, 2017 at 8:08 PM

    Good tips

  • Jan

    Jan

    April 24th, 2018 at 9:41 PM

    Thank you for a clearly written article. Love the phrase about how learning to communicate respectfully is a “humbling process”. Indeed!

  • Kd

    Kd

    May 15th, 2018 at 5:36 AM

    I have a problem expressing myself as to what i really feel and what i really want, most times its because i don’t know what i really feel most of the time and other times i’m scared of being judged or misjudged. I had this guy that really liked me but i was confused as to if i liked him or not. So i did not say yes to him neither did i say no but we were very much like dated over that period and there were a lot of quarrels between the both of us. He never felt secure neither did i . so there were speculations from both of us. Bottom line, he is no longer interested in us dating anymore but accepts that we can be friends now i feel like i was wrong and cry everyday for losing him and not having the courage to take a risk with him. He says we can be friends but the problem is i don’t know how to be friends with him.

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