If You’re Missing the Closeness You Used to Share, Here’s a Surprising Way to Reconnect
Happy couples reclaim and maintain honest, heart-centered communication. Don’t tiptoe around relationship tension, say experts. Use it as a tool to get talking and get closer.
Disagreeing with a partner or spouse is a reality in most relationships. We argue about money. We fight about who does what around the house. We even disagree about which way to roll the toilet paper.
“Relationships are hard,” says Kimberly Hagen, a marriage and family therapist based in Los Angeles. “It’s two different people coming together from two totally different backgrounds and points of view. You're not going to think the same about most things.”
But it turns out that no matter what couples disagree about, there's one thing that both causes those conflicts and solves them — communication. “Communication is so huge. And now that everybody's locked down and all up underneath each other, it's more important than ever to know how to communicate,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Wynn Helms.
Since good communication is the key to successful partnerships, we need to prioritize it. Here are six tips for leveling up your relationship by improving your communication.
1. Practice listening
One of the first steps to improving our communication skills is to work on our listening. “Couples often don't know how to listen,” says Helms, whose therapy practice is based in Sherman Oaks, California. Often, we’re thinking about what we’re going to say next rather than actively listening to what our partner is communicating.
“One of the really important things to do is go back and forth,” Helms says. When your partner is speaking, listen with the goal of understanding their perspective. After they finish talking, repeat back what they said by paraphrasing it. For example, “What I hear you saying is…”. When it’s your turn to speak, ask that your partner also echo your words back to you. Paraphrasing each other’s words gives you both an opportunity to confirm or correct what the other person thought they heard.
2. Write it down
Putting your thoughts on paper helps you understand your emotions better. For this reason, SharRon Jamison, a couples counselor and minister in Atlanta, suggests you journal your feelings before voicing them to your partner. You’ll be able to process your thoughts for yourself before attempting to communicate them, she says.
As you document your feelings, Jamison says we should get specific. Move beyond obvious sentiments like anger. “Some people are really good about mad, sad and glad,” she says. “They got those three down, but not all of the nuances — frustrated, irritated, lonely, yearning, craving, misunderstood or not seen.” Naming your exact emotions will help you communicate them more effectively and give your partner better insight into your perspective.
3. Pick your battles and know when to compromise
Helms says it’s important to know what issues we should lean into and which ones we should let go. Perhaps you like to roll your toothpaste tube up neatly from the bottom to the top, but your partner squeezes that thing right in the middle like they have no home-training. Sure it’s annoying, but in the grand scheme of things, how much does it matter? You’re better off saving your grievances for bigger issues.
“It's all about communication and being in relationship with someone,” Helms says. “Recognize the things that just cannot exist and the things you could compromise on.”
4. Don’t sit on your feelings
When something bothers you that's worth addressing, make sure you bring it up. Depending on your personality, it could be tempting to stew in your emotions. But you’ll be doing yourself and your relationship a disservice. Often, when you hold onto issues, it will lead to passive-aggressive behavior, Helms says. Or it could build up and result in blowups about insignificant things, like that tube of toothpaste.
5. Disagree effectively
If and when you argue, Helms says you should keep a couple of things in mind. First, know what triggers tend to set you off. Second, it’s OK to walk away from an argument, provided you come back. “Once you know [what your trigger] is, you can say, ‘OK, I just got triggered. I have to go over here for five minutes,’” Helms says. “Give yourself time to calm down, and then come back to the conversation.”
6. Keep practicing
“Communication takes practice, and it takes patience,” Helms reminds us. “It’s as if you're stretching a new muscle.” So keep working at it. And get excited about where better communication can take your relationship.