If you’re in a relationship, chances are you’ve had your fair share of tense moments. It’s OK to have arguments — clashing is a completely normal part of being a couple.
But the key to any lasting relationship is to work toward building a stronger, more intimate bond.
“Communication is important because it fosters trust and connection,” explains Shelley Sommerfeldt, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in relationships. “In order to have an open, honest, and vulnerable relationship with our partner, we must be able to freely communicate in a healthy manner.”
Whether you’re just starting out as a couple or have been together for years, these strategies can help you both improve your communication skills.
Before you can get to work on improving your communication skills, it’s important to first identify the areas that need some work.
Here are some signs to look for.
Passive aggressive behavior
Passive aggression is a way of expressing hidden anger instead of addressing conflict head-on.
This might look like:
- cracking jokes about your partner always being late
- punishing them for being late by giving the silent treatment
- making digs about their decisions
All of these behaviors allow you to express your frustration without actually having to talk about it. It might feel satisfying in the moment, but it won’t serve you any favors in the long run.
Brushing things under the rug
Simply avoiding conflicts won’t help, either. Ignoring issues just gives them the space and time to build up into something larger down the road.
Using aggressive speech
Becoming openly defensive or hostile when talking to your partner is a sign you’ve fallen into a toxic communication pattern.
Aggressive speech can involve:
- raising your voice
- blaming or criticizing
- controlling or dominating the conversation
Recognize any of the above signs in your relationship? These tips can help you foster more open and honest communication.
Process your feelings first
Before talking with your partner about an issue that’s upsetting for you, be sure to process your own feelings on the subject and calm yourself first, says Sommerfeldt.
“If we go into a conversation feeling very angry, upset or too emotional, then the communication tends to become too heated and difficult to find resolution,” says Sommerfeldt.
Try taking a quick walk or listening to relaxing music before talking to your partner. That way you’ll be more in control of your emotions and be able to communicate well.
Thinking about timing
Choosing the right time to talk with your partner can make all the difference, Sommerfeldt notes.
If something’s weighing on your mind, give your partner a heads up that you’d like to sit down and talk.
“If your partner knows that you’d like to speak with them, this can help de-escalate the situation as well because they are less likely to feel ambushed or blindsided with a heated debate,” Sommerfeldt says.
Start with ‘I’ statements and feelings
How we speak to our partner can make all the difference. Often, couples begin a conversation by pointing the finger at the other person and placing blame, says Sommerfeldt.
She recommends beginning conversations with how you are feeling. You can ensure you do this by using statements that start with “I.”
For example, instead of calling out your partner for focusing too much on work, you could say, “I feel hurt when you always focus on work.” This is less accusatory than saying, “You’re always focusing on work.”
Focus on being both being heard and listening
“Many couples enter conversations as though they are debates or arguments that they must win,” says Sommerfeldt.
While you may not agree with your partner’s point of view, it’s important to actually listen to why they feel the way they do. They should do the same for you.
When having a discussion, don’t make it a competition to see who wins. Instead, actively listen and try to understand their point of view.
Make compromising and resolution the goal
“Remember that the focus of communication with your partner is coming to an understanding,” Sommerfeldt explains.
Whether you’re bringing up hurt feelings or addressing conflicting ideas about future plans, both of you should leave a conversation feeling as though there’s some kind of resolution.
More often than not, that resolution relies on some level of compromise, whether it’s about the division of chores or making financial decisions.
“This helps people forgive and move forward,” she adds. “It can also bring on feelings of strength and connection between partners.”
Set clear boundaries
For example, if finances are a sore spot, consider coming up with some boundaries. Maybe you decide that any purchase over $500 must be discussed and approved by both parties before pulling the trigger.
Leave notes for your partner
It might seem minor, but leaving a note to let your partner know what you’re doing can be extremely helpful, says Estes. In addition to providing practical information, it shows your partner that you’re thinking of them and being considerate of their potential worries about where you are.
If you know you’ll be meeting up with a friend after getting groceries, leave a quick note letting your partner know.
Regularly check-in throughout the day
Similarly, Estes recommends doing regular check-ins in the morning, around lunchtime, and in the evening.
“This would include taking what I call your mood temperature,” Estes says. “If you’re in a bad mood, you want your partner to know before you explode.” Try using a scale of 1 to 10 to let your partner know how your day is going.
When it comes to communication, there are things you’ll want to avoid whenever possible.
The silent treatment
“People often adopt the silent treatment thinking it’s setting boundaries,” says licensed therapist, Jor-El Caraballo, “but boundaries work best when communicated explicitly with a partner, otherwise they may not realize they’ve crossed one.”
It’s better to be assertive about a boundary, Caraballo adds, than to assume that a partner knows why you’re hurt and shut them out, which can often cause more damage to a relationship.
Bringing up past mistakes
It’s easy to fall into the habit of rehashing the past during a heated moment. Regularly dredging up your partner’s mistakes can be counterproductive and just make them more defensive.
Yelling or screaming
Raising your voice during an argument or resorting to yelling and screaming is an ineffective way to process your anger.
In the long term, it can cause arguments to become more intense and erode your partner’s self-esteem.
Stonewalling or walking away mid-argument is a way of disengaging from your partner and leaving conflict unresolved.
It’s understandable to feel overwhelmed and need a timeout. Be sure to explain that you need to take a moment away from the conversation.
Sarcasm and put-downs
Be aware of inappropriate humor when you’re in the midst of arguing. If you want to break the ice, it’s better to make a harmless joke about yourself than say something negative about them.
Disrespectful nonverbal behavior
Body language can communicate volumes. Checking your phone instead of facing them and making eye contact, for example, can make the other person feel disrespected.
Effective communication is the foundation of a successful relationship, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.
If you’re having a hard time working through communications in your relationship, consider seeing a therapist, either on your own or with your partner, to work through any underlying issues and develop some new tools.
Cindy Lamothe is a freelance journalist based in Guatemala. She writes often about the intersections between health, wellness, and the science of human behavior. She’s written for The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Teen Vogue, Quartz, The Washington Post, and many more. Find her at cindylamothe.com.