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In relationships, we interact every day, but do we really communicate? While on a basic level we may be getting our points across, giving and receiving information, there is a difference between communicating effectively and ineffectively.
In a marriage or romantic relationship, effective communication is one of the most important keys to happiness and success. So it is vital to learn how to communicate like a champ, particularly with those closest to us.
Luckily, communication is a skill, and one you can improve upon dramatically. All you really need is a desire to learn and grow, an open mind, and a willingness to examine your own communication patterns and bad habits.
Why is Communication So Important in Relationships?
First, let’s stop and consider why relationship communication matters so much.
As human beings, communication is crucial to our survival. On the most primal level, communication allows us to warn others when there is a threat, or to share essential information like which berries are safe to eat. But in marriage, in the most intimate relationship of your life, your interactions go beyond the basics. Communication becomes about so much more.
Good communication sets the tone for the entirety of your relationship. Poor communication (or a total lack of it) is a recipe for unmet needs, unspoken concerns, and unhappy partners. Bad communication is at the root of the majority of conflict in a relationship. After all, most fights come from an initial misunderstanding. In other words, something was poorly communicated.
Positive communication skills help you avoid unnecessary conflict because you’re communicating your emotions, needs, and point of view before a problem even arises. Good communication means you are able to express what you want and need from your partner, without becoming defensive, accusatory, or anxious.
Some couples have decent communication skills, but these often fall to pieces when the couple finds themselves in a conflict situation. For these couples, it is beneficial to learn ways to fight fair and express their thoughts and feelings in healthy, non-confrontational ways.
Ready to learn more about healthy communication? Let’s look at 5 essential communication skills.
Learn what it means to truly listen
In the bestselling self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey states: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
This is an incredibly true statement. I know because I’ve been guilty of this exact habit myself. Listening does not come naturally to some of us, but listening to our loved ones is crucial to understanding them. It’s one of the hallmarks of great communication.
What does it mean to really listen to a person? Listening enables us to hear the words that are being spoken, but deep listening may allow us to discern clues from the way a partner is speaking. (Paying attention to body language and nonverbal signals are also part of listening to your partner).
The best way to improve your listening skills is practice. Listening takes patience and an open mind. You will need to practice these skills for a long time before they become regular habits. Check out these couples communication exercises for some practical ideas.
Here are a few ways to develop your listening skills:
- Think before you respond
Pausing before responding to your partner in a conversation can be lifechanging. Not only does it allow you to calmly assess what you’re about to say, but that extra moment also gives you an opportunity to more deeply consider what it is your partner is saying. What do their words mean? What is their body language telling you?
- Repeat your partner’s words
To know we’re being listened to can feel like an act of love. Your partner will appreciate signals that you’re listening closely and attentively to what they are communicating to you. Try repeating back what they are saying to you. Not mimicking like a parrot, of course, but repeating so that you can understand their intention fully. You can even put their statements into slightly different words if it helps you sort things out. Maintain eye contact for a deeper level of connection.
- Ask your partner to clarify anything that isn’t clear to you
Is something your partner said not making sense? Or perhaps something they said hurt your feelings or bothered you? Healthy communicators know that asking for more information is key. If you’re not sure what he or she meant, ask! This is such a simple tip, but it really makes a difference in clearing up misunderstandings and getting on the same page.
Read Next: 7 Things People in Happy Relationships Don’t Do
Check your assumptions and expectations
A significant problem in relationships can be unfulfilled or unspoken expectations. We all bring expectations to our relationship. These vary greatly from things like how happy we expect our marriage to be to the ways we believe our partner should celebrate our birthdays. Expectations are everywhere and you may not even realize you have them.
Understanding these will require some work on yourself. Examine the expectations you hold for your relationship, your partner, and even for yourself. Is it possible these are negatively impacting your relationship? Not sure how to figure out what expectations or assumptions you might be holding onto? A good example may be the last thing you and your partner fought about.
My husband and I had a recent argument after I had vented about some everyday stress and problems I was dealing with. He became closed off and seemed (to me) to have an attitude of anger. Instead of his usual comfort and affection, he didn’t say much. Then I became upset. Why wasn’t he holding me and offering words of support? Why was I feeling like he hadn’t heard me.
Here’s what happened. For Nathan’s part, he had grown frustrated for a few reasons. First, the stressful issues I was bringing up were things he had heard me voice many, many times before. To his mind, he had run out of helpful things to say. And he was probably also a bit tired of hearing about this same issue. He felt depleted and like he couldn’t be helpful. He also felt distress about his own inability to help comfort me, which revealed itself in his negative feelings.
After some discussion, it became clear to me that Nathan’s expectation for himself was that he should always offer a solution to my problems. Because he’d exhausted his good advice on many previous occasions, he was not meeting this own expectation.
But the conversation turned to MY expectations, which I held but had not expressed. For me, when I am having a problem or feeling pain, I don’t always want solutions or ideas. In fact, most of the time, what I want is pure comfort and affection. I want him to simply be there for me, giving me space to feel my feelings but also being there for me, physically and mentally. I want him to be the listener I love and trust, allowing me to be vulnerable and share with him. He doesn’t need to say much more than “wow baby, that sucks” or “I’m sorry” or “I’m here for you.”
Once we understood our own expectations, we immediately saw the reason for this fight, and it revealed something about our previous disagreements, too.
Recognizing these is the first step to better communication for couples, but the second is implementing them in interaction and conversation.
In managing our own conflicts, my husband and I realized that sometimes we just need to tell the other person exactly what it is we need. It boils down to openness and honesty and being willing to share without fear. Because not only does this avoid miscommunications, it ensures we actually get what we need. In the end, we both end up happy. Ideally, each partner’s needs are met, and we both feel secure and satisfied, knowing we were able to give our partner what they needed from us. As you might expect, this leads to overall deeper intimacy.
Pay attention to the words you use
Healthy communication has a lot to do with the words that are expressed. After all, you probably have experienced firsthand how just one hurtful word can be the cause of a major conflict situation.
The words we use matter so much, whether these are positive sentiments or negative ones. Words of encouragement build us up, while words of resentment tear us down.
But as people, it’s so easy to let our mouths run away with us. Speaking out in anger and defensiveness is incredibly common. But to be our most effective communicators and to have the happiest relationships, we need to make it our goal to change the words we use.
Here are a few tips to help you better control your words in your relationship:
- Avoid using “You” statements.
This is one of the top tips for better communication in relationships. (I’m sure any life coach or therapist would agree!)
When we communicate our feelings to our partner, it is far better to use “I” statements as much as possible. Example: things like saying “when this happened I felt like” or “I was hurt when you did such and such.” While you probably can’t avoid using the word “you” in a conversation with your partner, the point is to emphasize the I statements. This demonstrates that you’re taking ownership of your own thoughts and feelings, and it communicates your point of view in a way that doesn’t place blame on the other person. It also reinforces the fact that your emotions are your own, and are not just the responsibility of your partner.
- Avoid using words like “always” or “never”
When we’re in the heat of an argument, it can be incredibly easy to say things we will later regret. But sweeping statements are nearly always a bad idea.
Have you ever found yourself in a fight with your partner where you said things like “you always say that” or “you’re never there for me.” It can feel good to get these things out in the moment, because they are likely the results of frustration that has built up inside us. Yet these statements are not the best way to express how we feel. And more importantly, they are seldom well-received by our partner. When someone speaks to us in this way, it is common to take it as a deep criticism and immediately respond with defensiveness. Thus, the tension and energy builds and—most likely—the conflict worsens.
Instead of making a broad statement, try to stick to the matter at hand. Bringing past grievances into the present only incites high emotion and diminishes your ability to resolve the real problem. So whenever possible, use language that helps the two of you move closer to a resolution. And don’t get frustrated if you forget. Remember that building your relationship skills is a process.
PS: Holding grudges or always bringing up the past is not one of the habits of happy couples, and it definitely is not one of the basics of fighting fair in relationships.
Read these: 7 Couples Communication Books That Will Transform Your Marriage
Make time for focused communication
In relationships, communication is something that needs to be prioritized, and this means you often need to make specific time for it. Even when—or perhaps especially when—you don’t feel like it.
Solid communication needs to happen as often as possible, but it can happen in many different ways. You and your significant other may need to have a conversation about how to make sure that the communication in your relationship stays at top of mind for both of you.
One easy way is to set aside time for regular conversations together. Note that these should be conversations where you both offer your full attention and focus to the other person and have the opportunity to practice listening. These exchanges are a great way to show respect to your partner, and to learn more about their opinions, views, motives, and who they are overall as a person. Your conversation can take the form of a short chat in the morning in bed together or something longer in the evenings. It’s up to the two of you.
Making time for this kind of communication can also mean picking the right time to bring up something you need to talk about. This is an area of marriage I really need help in. I tend to blurt out whatever’s on my mind, even if my timing is not the most appropriate. You know, like bringing up major life decisions in the middle of playing a laidback boardgame. Unfortunately, this has lead to some difficulties for us, but we’ve been able to turn them into opportunities to deepen our skills and rethink our strategies.
Some couples like to schedule a weekly or monthly marriage meeting as a way of making time to connect about these more important issues. To my thinking, this is an excellent idea, as it provides a dedicated time in which to talk all things relationship. Each partner can share what’s on their mind and together, the two of you can take steps to improve any areas that need it.
Even the very fact of knowing you have a relationship meeting scheduled can be affirming for some individuals. Moments set aside to share worries and problems can be a relief to the anxious mind. Get vulnerable with one another and discuss everything from sex to chores to family plans and relationship goals. The marriage checkup can even be tool for stress management, believe it or not. Not convinced? Give it a try and see if it impacts your wellbeing. I think you’ll find that it does!
Express appreciation for your partner
One of the best communication tips we’ve ever received is to always show our gratitude and love for our partner. Obviously, you might not feel like doing this in the heat of an argument, but if it is something you’re practicing regularly, it has a compound effect. On some level, your partner will feel that appreciation even in the midst of the conflict.
When you are trying to connect with your partner, it can be prudent to start off with an expression of care and appreciation. Why not hold their hands and let them know their importance in your life?
Expressions of gratitude can also happen in small ways, every day. Practice showing your love in the little gestures you offer your partner, like a quick touch on the back or a meaningful kiss on your way to work. Learn your partner’s love language and figure out the ways in which they best experience love. This differs from person to person and learning your partner’s love language can be a total gamechanger in relationships.
Keep at It
Communication is not something you will become an expert at overnight. The truth is, it is a skill you will need to hone for years. But the positive impact it will have on your relationship is nothing short of extraordinary.
While we’re not experts on communication in a relationship, we are working on it constantly in our own marriage, and we plan to keep sharing what we’re learning along the way. We hope you’ll stick with us as we embark on this adventure together!
Read these next:
- 12 Essential Pieces of Relationship Advice for Couples
- 10 Rules for a Happy Marriage
- The Words of Affirmation Love Language: A Guide
- 48 Questions to Ask Before Marriage
Amy Hartle is the co-founder and owner of Two Drifters, where she blogs about romantic and couples travel, relationships, honeymoons, and more. With a Master’s in English and a BA in Musical Theatre, Amy loves to write quality content as well as to entertain, and she hopes to do a bit of both here on the blog! Amy is happily married to her husband Nathan, and when not working on their sites, Amy & Nathan can be found cuddling, reading, and enjoying delicious lattes.