Ask happy couples what they think is key to keeping their relationship bright and joyful: “good communication skills” will be up high on their list, along with mutual respect, admiration, and of course awesome sex.
Effective communication is not always innate, however. We aren’t born knowing how to share our thoughts and feelings in a smooth, respectful way with our spouse. Those of us who were lucky enough to see our parents interact in healthy, relationship-enriching conversations have a head start on how this works. But for many of who did not grow up in households where parents communicated effectively, it is important to learn some productive, resolution-oriented ways to communicate with our spouse, especially when navigating subjects that are sensitive but essential to relationship building and maintenance.
Good communication is built on a foundation of respect
Think about the people you know who are poor communicators. They yell, they argue their point endlessly, they dominate the dialogue and never let the other person get a word in edgewise. In short, poor communicators don’t practice respectful communication. They broadcast their message with such force that the listener only hears “I don’t respect you enough to talk to you in a calm, inviting way.”
This is counterproductive to building a meaningful dialogue. What are some ways you can set up your communications that show you value and respect your spouse?
Hold your conversation in a calm environment
Jumping into a hot issue the minute your spouse walks through the front door after a long work day is a surefire way to alienate them and put them on the defensive. Plan your important relationship conversations for a time when you can pay attention and focus on each other. It might be after the children are asleep, or on a Saturday afternoon when all of your tasks are finished. Make sure distractions are low and you can both invest in the dialogue.
Use active listening skills
Effective communication means both of you are present in the conversation. You don’t want to be half listening while mentally reflecting on your to-do list, or planning what you want to be saying while your spouse is speaking. Use active listening skills to show your spouse that you are completely involved in the moment and hearing what they are sharing with you. If your partner is telling you that they feel unsupported because you are working a lot, you might say something like “It sounds like you are frustrated that you are having to shoulder all the household responsibilities yourself.” When you spouse agrees that that is what they are saying, a great, proactive way to follow up your active listening is to ask an open-ended question: “What can I do to help us find a solution to this?”
Keep things positive and moving forward
No name-calling, insults, or bringing up a list of all the wrongs your spouse has done over the course of your relationship. That’s how unhealthy couples fight, and it never leads to a good resolution. If you find your conversation getting heated, you might want to suggest—in a gentle voice– taking a break and revisiting the issues once things have calmed down. Remind your spouse that the goal of communication is to bring you closer together, not drive you apart.
The power of touch
Respectful communication involves being mentally connected. But did you know that if you touch your spouse while you are talking–on the arm, or by taking their hand—it will help them feel more connected to you? Touch is also soothing, and reminds your spouse that even if you are discussing something challenging, you still love them and want to be close to them.
Show your spouse you want to understand their point of view
Couples with great communication skills rely on this to keep the dialogue moving forward. Rather than trying to force their point of view on the other person, they seek to understand the “why” behind how their spouse sees the issue. Instead of insisting that your opinion is the right one, take a moment to let your spouse put into words why they see things the way they do. Remember to use your active listening skills to acknowledge that you have heard them before you share your thoughts on how you see things.
Be open to changing your opinion
This is related to the above point and shows your spouse that you are empathetic and understanding. It may be that once your spouse has told you their point of view on the subject you are discussing, you realize that they are right. Healthy communicators are not ashamed of changing their minds. Saying to your spouse “You know what? I get what you are saying. And you are right.” allows them to hear that you not only acknowledge their perspective, but that they communicated it so well that you now actually share it!
Respect your spouse by using “I” statements
“I really get annoyed when I have to nag you each time to get you to take out the trash” sounds better to your spouse’s ears than “You can’t ever remember to take out the trash without me nagging you.”
Winding down effective communication
You’ve each had time to talk and listen. You’ve reached a mutually-agreed upon resolution. How do you end the conversation so that these good feelings continue?
- Breathe deeply. You’ve both just done something remarkable for your relationship. Share the gratitude with each other. “I really like how we can talk these things over without conflict. It makes me feel closer to you” is a wonderful compliment to give to your spouse. Tell them what you’ve learned from this discussion; any point of view that you hadn’t considered before. Validate what they shared with you, and ask them how they are feeling.
- Make a joke. “Man, we could negotiate the next Peace Treaty!” acknowledges how well you both are communicating in a light-hearted way.
- End with a hug. This will come naturally to you, because you’ve just successfully worked through something big, and come out of it closer than you were before. Enjoy this moment!