How to improve communication in relationships

Effective communication is the most important variable in the success of a relationship. Healthy communication involves a balanced exchange of ideas, responsible expression of strong emotions, mutual empathy and acceptance. Effective communication is the glue that binds two people and if communication is poor, vulnerabilities will emerge. Regular communication helps clear the air and press the reset button. 

Here are 10 ways to improve communication and stay connected in your relationship.

1. Avoid deflection - deal with one issue at a time

Communication is sabotaged when the underlying problem isn’t addressed. For example:

  • Person A: “I really wish you could have let me know that you were going to be late again.”
  • Person B: “Well, I wasn’t that late and besides, you were late the other day and you never gave me advanced warning.”

Instead of discussing why Person B was late, the problem has been thrown back (deflected) to Person A and their behaviour is now under scrutiny. The ideal scenario is to discuss the issue that Person A has brought up first - why Person B is always late. Deflection shows a lack of personal responsibility and Person A will end up feeling frustrated and nothing will be resolved.

Always tackle one issue at a time and avoid deflection.

2. Use “I” statements

When you use “I” statements, your partner is more likely to listen to you. Using “you” in statements can be perceived as aggressive, resulting in your partner becoming defensive if they feel attacked/shamed. Defensiveness limits effective communication.

Statements such as “You always forget to pick the towels up off the floor” or “You never listen to me”, are more likely to lead to a breakdown in communication.

Instead, try assertive script:

I feel … (insert emotion - e.g. sad/angry) when you… (insert behaviour - e.g. don’t include me in your plans), so what I would prefer is… (insert a useful suggestion e.g. If you could consider me too when you make plans).

Assertive script is immensely helpful in getting your point across and reduces defensiveness. It may take some practice but it’s a great communication skill to learn.

3. Take responsibility for your actions

Say sorry when you’re in the wrong and own up to your part in the equation. It always takes two. Taking responsibility is a wonderful tension-reliever. Defusing tension as it arises is vital for the longevity of a relationship. If problems aren’t resolved, that ‘emotional baggage’ will grow heavier over time and might eventually signal the end of the relationship.

Admitting to being in the wrong shows strength of character and maturity. Your partner will respect you more too. If you constantly deny any wrongdoing your partner will end up feeling hopeless about the relationship. Not only is accepting responsibility a sign of maturity but being willing to work at adapting or learning from your mistakes is also important. Ask for what you want and don't expect your partner to be a mind reader. 

Think of a relationship as if it were a garden. If you don’t tend to it and give it attention, weeds will grow. Relationships take work and they need nurturing to go the distance. 

4. Don’t play mind games

Counsellors often refer to Transactional Analysis when analysing patterns of behaviour in relationships. Three roles exist - parent, child, adult. If you want your relationship to be happy and successful, do your best to remain in ‘adult mode’ when communicating with your partner. Adult mode suggests a balanced approach to communication. 

We all slip into all three types of roles but generally speaking, when we are in ‘parent mode’ we tend to be bossy, judgemental or condescending and this approach causes damage in relationships. 

When we are in ‘child mode’ we play silly games that lead us nowhere. For example, if your partner forgets to clean up the kitchen, and you say to yourself, “Well if they're not going to clean up the kitchen then I'm going to stop making dinner.” This is an example of tit-for-tat behaviour. If your partner doesn't put kisses on their text to you, and you decide to stop putting kisses as well in retaliation you are acting in child mode. Child-like behaviour is often passive aggressive and isn’t helpful in any way. 

John Gottman and his colleagues have shown that divorce can be predicted with 96% accuracy by identifying the presence of the following four behaviours in a marriage. Criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stone-walling (such as the silent treatment).

Communicate directly, clearly and openly using assertive communication (see: assertive script) rather than indirect passive-aggressive behaviour. Over time, passive-aggressive behaviour will erode the goodwill in the relationship. 

5. Really listen

Reflective listening is a skill that you can practise. You are a good listener if you don’t interrupt when your partner is talking and you don’t talk over each other. If you find that you can’t stop interrupting, find an object that you can use to limit interruptions (for example - a tennis ball or a cushion. You can use your imagination). When one partner is holding the object the other person may not talk.

When person A has finished speaking, person B is given the tennis ball and before they have their say, they must repeat back what person A said. This helps to ensure that both people are on the same page and that there is a shared understanding of the problem. Really listen when your partner speaks instead of formulating your reply while they talk. Reflective listening shows that you really care about your partner’s lived experience and helps them to feel valued. 

6. Show empathy for your partner

Put yourself in your partner’s shoes. The more you care and understand their feelings, the more communication will flow. If on the other hand, your partner feels that you don't care they may withdraw until there is little effective communication left.

We don’t all have equal amounts of emotional intelligence but the higher your empathy levels, the more successful your relationship will be. Being in tune with your partner’s feelings gives you the edge when it comes to communicating. Don’t worry though if you don’t feel that you are as in tune with your partner as you’d like to be. You can work at it by checking in regularly. Make sure you talk often about any issues as they occur. Problem-solving together will increase your bond and help you to feel closer to each other. 

7. Make time for fun

Spend quality time with each other. All work and no play is never a good idea. When you are both relaxed you will be more likely to open up and trust each other. Doing things out of your comfort zone has been proven to increase levels of intimacy and trust. When we experience fun together, our brains associate those good feelings with being around our partner. When life is all about chores and there is no time for fun, you will, without question, be destabilising your connection. 

If you are both workaholics, make an extra effort to spend quality time together. Creating happy memories will intensify your feelings for each other and will help you to bond as well as foster intimacy. 

8. Know each other’s primary love language

Gary Chapman wrote a book called “Love Languages”. In it he writes about the main ways in which many of us feel loved. I recommend that you find out what your partner’s top love language is. Keep their love language in mind when you spend time together. For instance, if your partner tells you that their top love language is quality time, they will really appreciate it when you take time out of your busy day to focus on them and spend time with them. 

We often express our own love language instead of our partner’s and then wonder why they haven’t reacted with appreciation. I may like gifts but if my partner prefers quality time and I give my partner gifts they may not truly appreciate the gesture.

The five love languages are: 

  • quality time
  • gifts
  • acts of service
  • affection
  • verbal affirmations

Learn how to discover your love languages on Happiful.

9. Compromise regularly

It’s not all about you. A relationship is about two people with different needs and wants. Throw different backgrounds and upbringings into the mix and there are bound to be differences. Be sensitive towards your individual differences and always try to meet in the middle. A one-sided relationship will undoubtedly cause friction and resentment.

10. Give as much as you take

Think of a relationship as a vase - it starts out empty. You have to add before you can withdraw. Make sure you are adding in (love, sacrifice, compromise etc) and not just taking - consider your partner’s language of love. The more someone feels appreciated the more they will want to do for you.

You could also think of a relationship as if it were a garden. If you don’t tend to it and give it attention, weeds will grow. Relationships take work and they need nurturing to go the distance. 

It may seem that a lot is required to successfully communicate in a relationship. The bottom line is that if you communicate frequently, ask for what you want and are willing to compromise, you're off to a good start. Stay in adult mode and avoid playing games and you will increase your chances of finding love and keeping it.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Mandy Kloppers - Anxiety & relationship counsellor/coach BABCP Accred.

Depression, anxiety & relationships are my specialisms. I'm a qualified CBT therapist/Psychotherapist & also write a daily blog on how to get the most out of life. My blog focuses on mental health issues/emotional well being. Mental health is possible but there are times when we need the support of others (even counsellors need someone to talk to).… Read more

Written by Mandy Kloppers - Anxiety & relationship counsellor/coach BABCP Accred.

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