How to: 5 Ways to Communicate with your Partner

Couples seeking therapy frequently cite communication as the number one problem in their relationship. But what does this really mean? If it were just a matter of getting couples to talk more, my job would be simple. (Sometimes it is that simple). Unfortunately, it usually means that the way the couple is talking ends up in a painful repetitive cycle with little resolution of the issues at hand. Every couple has their unique struggle with communicating, but what is clear is that partners often have difficulty knowing how to speak so they will increase their chances of being heard, or listen so their partner will want to speak.

There are two parts to successful communication: speaking and listening. We all want to feel heard and understood, but struggle with taking the steps necessary to hear and understand. When couples attempt to discuss something emotionally important with one another it is easy to trigger defensive reactivity, which begins to send the dialogue down a thorny path. People are rarely willing to be vulnerable or open when feeling attacked or threatened.

Here are some common mistakes people make and tips on how to be better at communicating:

1. Make “I” statements rather than “you” statements. Using the word “you” sounds accusatory and puts the other person on the defensive. “I have trouble dealing with your piles of clothes on the floor,” is likely to have better results than saying “you are a slob!” Be careful not to disguise a “you” statement with an “I” statement. For example, saying “I” feel that you are a slob is still a “you” statement!

2. Avoid extreme generalities like “never” and “always. This will only provoke the other person to argue about whether it is true that it is “always” or “never” (and the issue will be lost.) Better to say, “Sometimes when I bring something up that bothers me, I notice that you get quiet,” than to say: “You always shut down when I talk to you!”  Saying “always” will likely bring the rejoinder: “No I don’t!” or worse a cross-accusation like: “well you never say things nicely” to which you are likely to say, “That’s not true!” As you see, nothing has been resolved.


3. Being curious about the other person’s experience is also a plus. So, using the example above, if you want to go farther you can ask, “What goes on for you when I bring something up?”  Or, “Is there anything I’m doing that makes it difficult to talk with me?”  Your partner may open up about his or her struggle with expressing thoughts or feelings if it seems like you are genuinely interested and want to hear.

4. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down!” Whenever possible give some positive feedback before bringing up a problem. “I really appreciate you taking the time to pick up my cleaning for me today, next time, would you let me know that you will be late?”

5. It is easier for your partner to really hear what you have to say, if he or she feels you have first heard and understood what has been said to you. When one person is speaking it is common to tune out, spending the time formulating a rebuttal instead of really listening. Good communication hinges on the ability to listen. Before responding, take a minute to let your partner know what you have heard him or her say first, before adding your perspective.  Saying, “I hear that you are really upset about this. Let me tell you what was going on for me.” Is better than just defending your position.

Last but not least: There is an old saying: Do you want to be right or do you want to be married? If you are afraid of being wrong, you will fight harder to be right and make the other person wrong. This is a no-win situation. The best thing to facilitate effective communication is to step out of the right/wrong dilemma altogether and choose to make the relationship more important than either one of you. The result will be further intimacy and closeness with your partner.

Martha Carr, Psy.D.,LMFT is a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist in Burbank, California counseling couples, individuals, and families. Contact her at (818) 559-7261 or by e-mail: You can also visit her website.

Leave a Reply Blog