You’ve probably heard it said that good communication is the key to a happy relationship. And yes, that is true to some extent. It is good to listen without interrupting and also to express yourself well if you’re trying to help your partner understand what you’re feeling or thinking. And it helps to regularly make time to share what is going on with each of you beyond the shopping list, the family’s schedule for the week and who’s turn it is to sort out the washing.
But when couples come to see my husband and I with help for their communication issues, it often turns out that communication isn’t really the problem. Most people know how to listen and to speak clearly. They already manage to do it at work and with their friends and probably they did it fine when they were first dating.
So, what has gone wrong? Often the issue is a loss of connection. When couples struggle with their communication often what they mean is that they feel dis-connected from the most important person in their life. For some reason one or both of them isn’t feeling loved, safe, secure or appreciated in the relationship.
A sense of disconnection creates a sense of panic in most of us. It’s a primal response. It causes some of us to protest in ways which can look like nagging, criticising, or complaining, whereas others might withdraw in ways which can look like sulking, ignoring or disinterest.
But behind the outward response is often a different story. The partner who protests is often feeling uncared for or unloved whilst the withdrawing partner may feel unappreciated or deflated because that they can’t do anything right. If these ways are left unchecked, a cycle can develop which in turn leads to more and more disconnection.
What’s the answer? To communicate better? Yes, but better means communicating at a deep and vulnerable level. If you’re a typical protestor, then try to express your softer emotions. Explain how you feel unloved and why. If you’re a typical withdrawer then try to stay engaged and express your fears of not knowing how to react or how to make things better.
In short, the key to a happy relationship is to build and maintain a strong connection. To do this, first discover the things that help you both feel loved, close and like an “us”. Second, just keep doing these things over and over. And if you do get disconnected, get honest about what’s really going on for you both.
Top Tips for Great Communication
- Be kind: Sometimes we can end up speaking negatively to our spouse in a way that we would never speak to a friend or a stranger. It will make all the difference if we can cherish our most important relationship.
- Choose your time wisely: If you want to talk about something that’s upsetting you or if you need to make an important decision, then try to make sure neither of you is distracted, hungry, angry, stressed or tired. It is not likely to be productive. Instead identify a good time that will work for both of you.
- Say what you really mean: Try to share what is really going on for you at a deeper level. What are you fearful of? What is the story you are telling yourself?
- Make the effort to listen: When we think we know someone well, we can get lazy at listening. Try to give your partner your full attention; turn your eyes, ears and heart towards them.
- Get curious: When couples are dating, they’re often very curious. Try to keep this up. Ask questions to find out what life is like from your partner’s perspective.
- Watch your pronouns: Using the pronoun “you” in the negative can lead to the blame game. “You always leave the loo seat up” or “You never talk to me”. Try using “I” or “we” instead. “I’d really appreciate it if you could put the loo seat down” or“It would be great if we could find more time to sit and talk”.
- Keep building connection: Why not talk together about what helps you both feel connected? Then plan to do more of whatever helps.