Communication in Your Relationships

Communication in Your Relationships

We've all heard the phrase, "Communication is key" when it comes to relationships. It's for good reason; we hear it because it's simply true. Communication is certainly necessary for building lasting, loving, and healthy relationships.

Unfortunately, what we don't hear all the time is what constitutes healthy and constructive communication. If you've ever had a squabble with someone in your life, you've probably had the experience of believing that you're communicating your thoughts/feelings/needs, but not really feeling 'heard'. In fact, your attempt at communicating might have resulted in invalidation, dismissal, accusation, defensiveness, or being misunderstood.

All humans are individuals with their own biopsychosocial history - how could human interaction not be as complex as it is?! If we all come with our own hopes, desires, and attachment styles paired with individual genetics/DNA/biology, combined with our past experiences, traumas, family dynamics, and culture, then you can bet communication is going to need work depending on the people you're in relationship with.

At a Glance

  • You can be the most effective communicator in the world, and it still doesn't control the recipient's skills, reactions, thoughts, and feelings. 
  • Not all effective communication is "perfect" communication. It can feel effortful and awkward. 
  • Everyone makes mistakes. We're human. What's important is that you demonstrate willingness to turn towards your partner, take accountability where it's due, make an effort to improve, speak calmly as much as possible, communicate your needs, be forgiving, and always treat each other with respect.
    • Note: This does not apply to abusive behaviour and domestic violence. If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, please seek appropriate help from a professional. Click here for resources. 
  • Relationships are two-way streets. You are not perfect, so don't expect your partner to be perfect. Allow space and time for learning to take place.
  • Check your expectations. Understand where your expectations for your partner developed. Don't expect your partner to fulfill every need for you. One person cannot be everything all at once. 
  • Start to be the change you wish to see in the relationship. Model the type of communication and behaviour that you would like more; handle conflict and repair in ways aligned with the kind of person you want to be. 
  • There are different types of communication. Do your part to learn about them. 
  • Learn how to validate! Do not underestimate the value of validation. It is learning how to make someone feel heard and understood, which is great for defusing conflict.  
  • Seek individual therapy to help you develop these skills. 

Before we get too ahead of ourselves, let's be clear on the types of communication that exist.

Types of Communication

Five Types of Communication
  1. Verbal: what we say and how we say it; tone of voice, pace of speech, volume of speech.
  2. Non-verbal: body posture, eye contact, body movements, physical proximity, sounds, silence, etc.
  3. Written: what words/emojis you communicate and the tone your message conveys.
  4. Listening: active listening is a conscious behaviour and important skill in a relationship.
  5. Visual: image-only; photos, videos.

Part of effective communication is being mindful of how all forms of it play a role. When it comes to expressions of love and affection in close relationships, we consider what are referred to as the "five love languages".

Five Love Languages
  1. Quality time: intentional and mindful time that's spent together, typically doing a shared activity. It can be a passive activity (e.g. watching a movie together) or active (e.g. conversation).Examples:
    Dinner dates out of the house
    Cooking a meal together at home
    Picking a movie to watch together
    Having a conversation about one another's day
    Planning an activity or trip together
    Going on walks together
    Other:
  2. Physical touch: intimate and/or non-sexual [consensual] touchExamples:
    Hugs
    Touch of the lower back in the kitchen
    Hand holding
    Touching a leg while watching TV together
    Kissing
    Other:
  3. Words of affirmation: verbally expressing support, encouragement, compliments, liking and love to your partner.Examples:
    Expressing positive thoughts and feelings about the relationship
    Saying what you admire or like about your partner
    Voicing appreciation and gratitude
    Compliments
    "I love you"
    Other:
  4. Acts of service: it is as self-explanatory as it sounds; it's actions that help or are considerate of your partner in some way.Examples:
    Filling up their gas tank
    Unloading the dishwasher
    Unpacking grocery bags
    Doing the laundry/making the bed
    Cooking dinner
    Asking what they need from the store
    Driving to pick them up/drop them off
    Other:
  5. Gifts: care and affection expressed through gift-giving. Gifts can have monetary value or homemade.Examples:
    Baked goods
    Jewelry
    Flowers
    Money
    Accessories
    Card
    Other:

These are the ways in which you are inclined to give love and receive it. It's possible for us to show all of them, but there's likely a couple that you do significantly more than others. Take a moment to reflect on what yours might be! Or take the love test here.

Some couples find it helpful to know each other's love language so that demonstrations of love can be better recognized and acknowledged. Sometimes, if we don't receive love in the way that's meaningful to us, then we don't actually feel loved. This can cause rupture and rift in relationships, so either recognizing the other ways that your partner shows you love or telling them how you'd like to be shown love can foster growth and relationship satisfaction.

Communication in Your Relationships

Does your relationship have Green Flags?

  • Can I communicate my needs and wishes with my partner [and respect theirs]?
  • Do I respect and value my partner [and do my actions show that]?
  • Do we express gratitude often?
  • Do we share important goals, beliefs, and values together?
  • Can we spend time apart and independently?
  • Do I take my partner's perspective into consideration and do my best to understand their feelings even if I don't agree? Does my partner do the same?
  • Do I feel close and connected physically and/or emotionally?
  • Do I feel comfortable being myself in the relationship?
  • Do we respect each other's boundaries?
  • Do I feel safe expressing thoughts and feelings with my partner?
  • Do we take responsibility and accountability for our actions, then work on repair after a rupture?

So how do I develop more open, constructive, compassionate, and receptive dialogue in my relationship?

How to Have Healthy Communication in the Moment

  1. Do a quick check-in with yourself.
    How are you feeling? What's happening in your environment? Sometimes when we rush in from a hectic day at work, we jump into an interaction at home and risk displacing work-related emotions and stress onto our loved ones.

    Take a moment to pause before starting an interaction with your partner. Which lens are you viewing them through? One of resentment, disgust, or frustration? Try to view them through a lens of appreciation and gratitude. Remember, you are doing this to help you approach the interaction from a more mindful state.It's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day annoyances that come with long-term relationships.

    Try to remember that you're both human and you're both imperfect. Are these annoyances overshadowing the relationship? Are they simple annoyances that can be let go of or are they meaningful changes that you need to see in the relationship to move forward?

    Of course, daily habits and routines have the power to impact our emotional wellbeing and mental health. So if you have a concern about one of your partner's habits it may be worth having a sit-down conversation about why it's meaningful to you if they worked on changing it.

  2. Know your point.
    Is there a specific objective that you hope to achieve with your partner? Is there an important conversation you'd like to have or a need you'd like to assert? Or are you seeking more positive interactions in general?Identify what it is and anchor yourself to it when stormy waters inevitably arise during an interaction. For example, if you want your partner to help out with the dishes more often, then be specific about your expectations and what you want to be different; name what would be helpful to you.E.g., "When I cook, it would mean a lot to me if you helped out by doing the dishes."

    "When we both have a busy week, it would be a huge stress reliever for me if we split the nights to do the dishes"

    "I find it so attractive when you clean up after yourself."

  3. Express your feelings and the impact.
    You'd be surprised how many of us assume others have magical mind-reading abilities. We don't! You cannot read minds and it's unfair to expect your partner to read your mind. We tend to respond better to feelings and vulnerability compared to accusations or criticism.Think about it - the last time someone said, "You always do this and never do this _______!" what did you experience? It's likely you felt your back go up, defensiveness activated, and stopped listening so you could defend yourself against the attack. What if your partner approached you with their concern from a place of vulnerability?

    E.g., "Hey, can we talk? I have to say I'm feeling a bit nervous even bringing this up to you because I don't want to hurt you. I've been feeling a bit disconnected lately because I haven't been getting as much attention from you as I'm used to. I know you've been busy with work, so I understand why things might be different, and I wanted to let you know I'm missing those hugs/kisses/check-ins that mean so much to me and let me know you still care."

  4. Stay mindful.
    In emotionally charged situations, we have to work to stay present and mindful in the moment. This means paying attention to your tone of voice, body language, eye contact, inner thoughts/feelings/urges, and staying on track.For example, let's say you've told your partner that you want them to do the dishes after you cook and they respond with, "Well, I always drive us everywhere and I'm exhausted when I come home." This is called "bringing up the dirty laundry" and it's missing the point. You might feel elevated frustration, anger, sadness, or urges to become defensive and yell back. Instead, try to notice these inner experiences, use skills to cope with them (i.e., acknowledge it, breathe, remind yourself of the point of the conversation), then calmly, confidently, and clearly reassert your point.

    "That's taking it off track. I appreciate when you drive us and that doesn't change the fact that I need more help in the kitchen. I also get exhausted and it would make me feel more like a team if we worked on it together. What do you think you need to be able to help out more?"

  5. Reinforce.
    Why is it meaningful? What would it do for you, them, and the relationship if they met this objective?For example, "These kinds of things make me feel loved and cared for. When I feel valued by you then I'm the best version of myself and a lot more fun to be around. Trust me, I don't like nagging and I'd rather spend my time and energy loving up on you."
  6. Be prepared to negotiate. 
    Not every request will be met with open arms. Sometimes there needs to be room for compromise and negotiation so that both parties can feel like their needs/boundaries are respected.For example, "If you prefer cooking, then I'll clean up," Or "If I'm not willing to take on the dishes duties, then is there another chore I can take off your plate instead?"

Effective Relationship Communication in General

Dr. John Gottman developed The Sound Relationship House to explain common factors that help build a strong, secure foundation in relationships. The Sound Relationship House emphasizes the importance of trust, commitment, communication, and shared meaning, like much of the literature on intimate relationships. Moreover, The Gottman Institute has identified patterns of communication that commonly lead to the demise of relationships, called "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse".

Things to STOP Doing in Your Relationship by Amanda E. White, LPC

Credit to Amanda E. White, LPC @therapyforwomen

  1. Assuming your partner can read your mind. 
    Even if you've been with your partner for a long time, they don't "know you better than you know yourself." They may know you really well, but we all change and grow. The things we care about and the way we like to be treated will also evolve.
  2. Not giving your partner feedback. 
    While it may feel like a buzzkill to give your partner a 'cheat sheet' for how to treat you when you're feeling X, or how to support you when you feel Y. But, it is truly the best thing you can do for your relationship. It's time to lay out what your expectations are so they can meet them.
  3. Expecting your relationship to fulfill 100% of your wants, needs, and desires. 
    Relationships can be a huge source of joy, love, stability, and fulfillment, but no relationship will meet every need, no matter how 'perfect'. There's a reason we evolved in clans. One person cannot complete or fulfill you. You still need friends, family, etc.
  4. Assuming any doubt or conflict means you are doomed. 
    Relationships are hard work, no matter how well suited you are for each other. It's normal to have conflicts, disagreements, and even doubts. It's normal to question things. This does not mean your relationship is doomed or that you should break up.
  5. Comparing your relationship to others'.
    Every relationship is different. Everyone has different priorities, wants, and needs. Ask yourself... "Do I actually care about elaborate Valentine's Day gifts, or do I just expect this because I see what others are showing on social media?"
  6. Choosing being 'right' over understanding.
    Conflict and disagreement are opportunities to learn more about the other person and yourself. Stop treating a fight as an opportunity to prove you are right and win. Try to care more about understanding and learning over winning.
  7. Not owning your sh*t. 
    Your partner is not perfect and neither are you. You will invariably make mistakes. Learning how to apologize and take accountability will make this process easier. Learn when it's your stuff that's getting in the way and be dedicated to working through it.
  8. Thinking all you need is love. 
    Love is magical, especially in the honeymoon phase. But, in order for a relationship to last, we also need respect, honesty, understanding, communication, and dedication. Love is not a magical force that will solve everything and protect you from pain, but that doesn't mean it isn't amazing and worthy.

References

  1. Chapman, G. D., & Chapman, G. (2005). The five love languages: The secret to love that lasts. Oasis Audio.
  2. Linehan, M. (2014). DBT Skills training manual. Guilford Publications.
  3. https://www.gottman.com/
  4. https://www.gottman.com/blog/what-is-the-sound-relationship-house/