“If there’s an issue, make sure you always communicate,” they said.
“It’s the key to everything,” they said.
If only it were that simple. We’ll be the first to admit we’re big on emphasizing the importance of quality communication in your relationship. And it is important. It’s the foundation for staying connected, working through conflict, and the key to so many other aspects of your relationship. But as straightforward as that sounds, that very basic thing can actually be very difficult. You might feel like, “Oh geez, if we can’t even do the basics, where does that leave us?” That can be very discouraging.
Sometimes when we’re trying to work through a conflict or a contentious issue, things quickly devolve into an unproductive argument. Once again, nothing gets resolved. Why does this keep happening? There may be barriers preventing us from letting down our defenses and being vulnerable so that we can truly hear each other.
- Do you have negative patterns and habits you tend to fall into when trying to have a discussion? Perhaps your partner makes a comment that triggers you emotionally. Now your defenses are up, and you’re responding with a critical remark about them, and now they’re getting riled up, too. The chances of having a productive conversation just went out the window. Figuring out how to end these patterns will be key to improving your communication.
- Do you need to do some self-reflection? It’s easy to get wrapped up in focusing on all the ways your partner is contributing to the problem. The more you think about it, the angrier you get, and the more justified you feel in that mean comment you made. But sitting in this cycle does not help you communicate with your partner. To break it, we need to take a step back and be honest with ourselves. How am I contributing to the problem? What could I do or have done differently?
- Do you need to make each other feel safe? If your conversations often result in one or both of you feeling judged or attacked, it’s easy to see how you’d both be primed to get defensive the next time around. What do you need to feel like you can let down your guard? How can you show that you want your partner to feel safe communicating openly with you?
- Do you know what your “hot spots” are? These are the things that we tend to have an involuntary emotional reaction to when they’re brought up. It might be something you’re insecure about, connected to a past hurt, or even tied to what you experienced in your family growing up. Try to dig deep to figure out what these things are and why they make you have an emotional reaction.
Once you’ve identified the barriers that are preventing you from communicating productively, it’s time to sit down together and commit to working on this.
Acknowledge the struggle.
Admit that communication has not been your strong suit and agree that your relationship deserves better. Recognize that this is a skill that you can improve. Tell each other why you want to work on communicating better. Then think of it as a fresh start in a new journey together.
Strip away defenses by making each other feel safe and respected.
This one might take some real effort – old habits die hard. But the key to breaking those habits is to not do what you’d usually do. So your partner might say something that you makes you want to interrupt or reply with a counterpoint or criticism – hold back! Let them share and focus on truly hearing what they’re saying (active listening), instead of thinking about your retort. Remember, you should not need to attack to defend yourself if your partner is also committed to giving you space to share when it’s your turn. Be respectful of each other, not only in what you say, but in your body language as well.
Share your self-reflection discoveries.
Here’s your first opportunity to practice being honest, vulnerable, and accepting. Take turns sharing with each other any key things you discovered in your self-reflection. For example, you might talk about an area that you really struggle with or where you’d like to improve as a partner. This might be something like, “I realized I take it really personally when your opinion is different from mine. I want to try to stop taking it personally and learn more about why you think that way.” How can you support each other in these areas?
Talk through personal hot spots.
Share the personal hot spots you uncovered. A helpful framework for this is, “When you ______, I feel ______ because ______.” An example might be, “When you say I work too much, I feel inadequate because I am struggling to balance home and work right now.” Try to be specific and keep the focus on explaining your feelings and why you feel that way instead of making it about your partner. Use active listening to acknowledge what your partner is saying. In turning over a new leaf, how will you use this information about your partner?
Once you’ve made it this far, you’ve laid some groundwork for healthier communication, but the work is far from over. It will take conscious effort to avoid sliding back into old habits, and you probably will from time to time – that’s okay. Remind yourself and each other of the barriers that prevent you from communicating and how you can overcome them.
Communication is a “basic” relationship skill, but so many couples struggle with it. If this is you, you’re not alone! It can be frustrating, exhausting, and disheartening to feel as if you’re going in circles trying to communicate but never making any progress. We want you to know that it can get better. Sometimes you have to say, “Hey, what we’re doing isn’t working. Let’s try something new.” That might be working through the steps of this blog post or getting in touch with a professional to help you work through deeper issues and dynamics at play. Either way, if you can both agree that your relationship is worth the mutual effort and commit to doing the work, you’ve made a very important first step in the right direction.