“I don’t care where we go,” Rachel said. “Anywhere is fine.”
“Fine,” Doug said. “Let’s go to Taco Bell then.”
Rachel made a face.
“What? You said anywhere was fine!”
“But Taco Bell?” Rachel said.
Doug sighed. “Where do you want to go?”
Rachel shrugged. “Well, Olive Garden maybe. Not Taco Bell.”
“You could have just said that,” Doug said.
“Well, I thought you'd pick somewhere nice. It’s our date night!”
“Does that mean we have to spend a lot of money?”
“So what, you don’t want to spend money on me now?”
Conversations like this between couples happen millions of times a day. Unfortunately, they often lead to hurt feelings and anger, and over time, cause serious problems in the relationship.
Good communication is the key to any lasting relationship. But what, exactly, is good communication, and how do you know whether you’re doing it well or not?
What Is Good Communication?
Think back on your school years. It’s unlikely you’ll remember taking any class on good communication. If you had one, you were lucky, as they are rare.
Indeed, most of us are never taught how to communicate. We learn from our parents, extended family, teachers, and friends, and sometimes the patterns we adopt don’t serve us very well.
Good communication may be defined in many ways, but in general, it's about expressing yourself in a healthy way and allowing your partner to do the same while you carefully listen and absorb what they're saying.
You can also think of it as the successful sharing of ideas and feelings that leads to a more complete understanding.
Any communication that doesn’t do this—that pushes the two of you apart rather than bringing you closer together—is not good communication.
Your goal, then, when communicating with your partner, is to increase your understanding and reassure your partner that you value and respect them, while at the same time successfully communicating your feelings and needs so the two of you can come to a compromise—or simply improve your ability to interact with one another.
If you can master the skill of communication, you are more likely to avoid misunderstandings, take the guesswork out of your partnership, build trust, and grow the love between the two of you.
7 Ways to Communicate Better In Your Relationship
1. Take Responsibility for Your Own Feelings
So often we end up in trouble in relationships because we expect our partners to be mind-readers. This was Rachel's problem in the scenario at the beginning of the article. She said she “didn't care” where they went when in truth she really did. Communicating her true feelings upfront would have avoided the argument with her partner.
Never assume that your partner knows exactly what you need to be happy or to feel cared about. Speak up. Rachel might have said, “Well, it’s our date night, so I’d be happy to go somewhere nice where we can sit down and talk.”
Stating this or something like it puts Rachel squarely in charge of her own feelings, and communicates to Doug exactly what she needs to feel valued. Doug doesn’t have to guess what Rachel really wants—he knows, which makes it easier for him to fulfill her wishes.
2. Be Willing to Ask More Questions
Asking your partner questions shows interest and concern. This is where Doug dropped the ball in our scenario.
Instead of simply jumping to the choice of Taco Bell, Doug could have asked one more question and avoided the tension between him and Rachel. That question would have been: “Are you in the mood for something nice, or would fast-food be okay?”
Whereas Doug’s initial response—“Okay fine, let's go to Taco Bell”—seemed like a brush-off, this one additional question lets Rachel know that Doug cares about how she feels and is willing to adjust to make sure she enjoys the evening.
This can help create deeper conversations as well that draws the two of you together. Take another typical scenario. Your partner comes home. You ask, “How was your day?” He says, “Fine,” and that’s it. You let it go.
That doesn't do much to connect you.
Instead, you might follow up with, “Did everything go okay on that new project you started?” Or, “Were you able to talk to your boss like you wanted?”
If your partner doesn’t feel like talking, you can let it go after this, but asking even one additional question lets them know you care and can open the door to additional communication.
3. Practice Listening to Understand
This is perhaps one of the most difficult skills to develop in a relationship. When you are wrapped up in a heated argument about something, you're likely to be more concerned about getting your point across than understanding your partner's point of view.
A good communicator, however, will turn the tables and practice careful listening to understand their partner's point of view first. Often this simple step can make everything better, as with a full understanding of where your partner is coming from, you can probably create a workable compromise between you.
Let’s go back to our scenario. Instead of her response, “So what, you don’t want to spend money on me now?”, Rachel may have asked, “Are you concerned about money?” If she asks that in a truly open-ended (and not defensive) way, she may discover that Doug is worried about expenses, which would lead to a better understanding and a potential compromise on how much to spend on their weekly date nights.
On the other hand, instead of his response, “Does that mean we have to spend a lot of money?”, Doug might have said, “Does it make you feel less valued if we don’t spend as much money on date-night dinner?”
Whatever Rachel’s answer, it might have led to a deeper conversation about what each partner needs to feel valued in the relationship.
The point is to truly listen to your partner's responses to see what they're feeling underneath the surface. That takes practice!
4. Always Use “I” Statements
It’s extremely easy to feel defensive in a conversation with your partner. This can cause us to point fingers and lay blame.
“You just don’t want to spend any money on me anymore.”
If we turn this around to an “I” statement, we get, “I feel bad that you don’t want to spend money on me anymore.”
This accomplishes a few things:
- It shows that Rachel is taking responsibility for her own feelings.
- It communicates more clearly to Doug exactly how she is feeling.
- It doesn’t lay blame.
Of course, Doug doesn’t want Rachel to feel bad, so he is less likely to react defensively and instead, will want to help Rachel feel better.
Similarly, instead of saying, “You could have just said that,” Doug could have said, “I feel trapped when you don’t tell me what you really want.”
This more clearly communicates how Doug feels and is likely to inspire Rachel to help. After all, she doesn't want him to feel trapped. That's not her intention. The two can agree to more plain communication next time.
5. Ask Directly for What You Want
This can be difficult to do. We may feel like our partner should just “know” what we want, but that’s expecting too much and is likely to get you into trouble.
We reviewed how things might have gone better between Rachel and Doug if Rachel had been up-front about her feelings. Let’s apply this to another scenario.
Let’s say Doug comes home tired and grouchy. The second he walks in the door, he’s venting about his job, his long hours, and his low pay. Rachel listens carefully. At the first opportunity, she starts making suggestions.
“Why don’t you just quit? You could get another job.”
Or, “I think you should tell your boss what you think. You should stand up to him.”
After a few comments like these, Doug clams up and stews the rest of the night, leaving Rachel disappointed.
Here, we have a failure of communication! At that moment, Doug didn’t want advice. He simply wanted to vent. Rachel didn’t know that. She had heard these complaints before, and she wanted to encourage Doug to do something more to fix the problem.
There are a couple of ways to solve this. For one, Doug can speak up and say, “I just need to vent, honey. Is that okay? You’re the only one I can talk to about this.”
As for Rachel, she could be more observant of her husband’s nonverbal cues—his body language, frowny face, etc.—and realize that now isn’t the time to advise.
This leads us to tip number six.
6. Pick Up on Nonverbal Cues
We all communicate in more than one way. There are the words we speak, but then there is our body language, our tone of voice, and our actions.
What is your partner “saying” to you, nonverbally? Doug's body language and tone of voice conveyed his irritation and his need to “get it out” before he could calm down enough to think about solutions.
In our first scenario, Rachel’s nonverbal cues—perhaps she was looking out the window of the car, and maybe she shrugged when she said, “Anywhere is fine”—might give Doug the idea that in truth, “anywhere” isn’t fine.
Often these nonverbal cues tell us a lot more than the words do. It does take time, though, to learn your partner’s way of expressing themselves. Pay close attention and you’ll figure it out.
7. Don’t Make It All About You
Consider this scenario:
Doug comes home venting about his job and his boss. Rachel listens for a minute or two, then launches into her own tirade.
“Oh, I know it. I mean, at work today it was so frustrating. Joyce came in after being sick for three days and she just starts taking over. I mean, who does she think she is? I’ve been running this project the whole time she was gone and she didn’t even ask me what I’d done!”
Rachel may think she’s commiserating with Doug, but really, this “sharing” actually took the wind out of his sails. The conversation has suddenly become about her job and her frustration rather than his.
It’s not the end of the world if this happens now and then, but if it becomes a habit, your partner is going to feel like they’re not heard, and will simply stop talking to you. It would be better for Rachel to let Doug get it all out, and then when he’s ready, she can share her experience too.
The important thing is to balance the needs between you so that each of you feels heard and respected.
What If It’s a One-Way Street?
It’s best if you and your partner both want to improve your communication.
Sometimes, however, one partner may feel like they’re doing all the work, while the other is just gliding along.
If that’s the case, talk to your partner about your desire to improve communication. Use “I” statements and express your desire to feel closer in your relationship.
It may take more than once to get your partner to the point where they are willing to work on the issue with you. Take incremental steps and see how it goes. You may also want to choose to attend couples’ counseling.
Your hormones can make you feel overly emotional and sensitive, leading to unnecessary arguments. Learn how to balance your hormones here.