How to communicate in a relationship
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Connection: We all crave it. We seek it through family and friends, but often our intimate relationships are where we expect to find the most connection. When we don’t, we feel isolated and misunderstood. We let these negative emotions lead to arguments – or worse, we stop communicating at all.
Communication in relationships is essential to having a happy, healthy partnership. And it isn’t about making small talk. Asking your partner how their day went is nice, but if you want an extraordinary relationship, you must dig deeper. Learning how to communicate in a relationship is about fulfilling your partner’s needs. To improve communication in your relationship, you must discover how to listen, not how to talk.
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Why is communication in relationships important?
Communication in relationships is essential to having a happy, healthy partnership. Your partner is likely the person you spend the most time with, which means there’s a greater risk of misunderstandings and conflict. But when you perfect communication in relationships, you’ll be rewarded.
✓ Increased trust
Real communication in relationships means that you can go to your partner about anything: sharing happiness and sadness, good days and bad. You’re willing to be vulnerable with them because you know that they will support you and love you no matter what. Absolute courage and vulnerability is one of the Five Disciplines of Love because it leads to total trust in your relationship.
✓ Better conflict resolution
We all know couples who seem to fight all the time – and those who seem to never fight at all. While all relationships have ups and downs, both frequent fighting and no fighting at all are signs of a lack of communication in relationships. The key isn’t to never disagree with your partner. It’s to improve your conflict resolution skills by using the eight tips above so that when disagreements do happen, you’re able to turn them into something that strengthens your relationship instead of tearing it down.
✓ Increased intimacy
Discovering how to improve communication in relationships is excellent for your emotional intimacy, or ability to listen, understand and be compassionate toward your partner. Developing your communication skills shows that you respect and value your partner and their feelings and opinions. When people feel honored and accepted in this way, emotional intimacy skyrockets – and physical intimacy often follows.
Yes, over-communication in relationships does exist in certain contexts. There are two common defense mechanisms when people are feeling anxious or unsure of how to express themselves: internalizing and externalizing. People who internalize tend to shut down and withdraw during conflicts; those who externalize want to talk it out, sometimes excessively.
In both of these cases, more communication doesn’t necessarily equal good communication. Internalizers may need space before they’re ready to talk; externalizers may need to slow down and refine their message. Before you’re tempted to say more, think about how you can say it better instead.
How to communicate in a relationship
Communication in relationships can be the difference between a strong, lifelong partnership or a conflict-filled bond that ends in disappointment. Learning how to communicate better is vital.
1. Commit to true connection
The biggest misconception about how to communicate in a relationship is that communication is the same as talking or making conversation. Communication in relationships, at its core, is about connecting and using your verbal, written and physical skills to fulfill your partner’s needs. It’s not about making small talk. It’s about understanding your partner’s point of view, offering support and being your partners#1 fan.
It’s easy to let real connection and passion diminish, especially in long-term relationships. But the first key to how to improve communication in a relationship is to admit that you’re not connecting the way you used to. Talk with your partner about rekindling your connection and provide a starting point. If your partner isn’t on board, don’t worry. Relationships are a place where you go to give, not one where you go to take. You can still enact many of these strategies without a commitment from your partner – and you may even inspire them to reciprocate.
2. Identify your communication styles
Before you work on learning how to improve communication in a relationship, you need to realize that not everyone has the same communication style. The four main communication styles are passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive and assertive. Passive communicators keep their emotions inside and are the ones who can never seem to say “no.” Aggressive communicators are loud and intense, but typically have trouble making real connections with others. Passive-aggressive communicators avoid conflict and use sarcasm to deflect real communication. The healthiest type of communication is assertive: These people are in touch with their emotions and know how to communicate them effectively.
Communication styles also involve our metaprograms, or the ways that we respond to information. Some people like to talk, some prefer touch and others are more visual or respond better to gift giving than an outward discussion of feelings. You probably know which communication style you prefer, but what about your partner?
Communication and relationships are all different. Effective communication with your partner will come from acknowledging this. Your partner can be telling you exactly what they need, but you have to be cognizant of how they convey this information to you. If there’s miscommunication, you’ll miss the opportunity to build trust and intimacy, and you’ll both feel frustrated.
When striving to learn how to communicate better, watch your partner respond to different perceptive cues over a day or two. Does he or she seem to respond most to seeing and watching? Hearing and talking? Or touching and doing? For example, if your partner is more responsive to language, tone and other auditory cues, making lots of eye contact and gentle facial expressions isn’t communicating as much to them as you think. You’re sending signals but they’re not picking them up. On the other hand, if you find that you are an auditory person and your partner is a kinesthetic person, remember that saying “I love you” may not be enough. Reinforce your love with touch, and remember to do so often.
3. Discover the six human needs
There are six fundamental needs that all humans share, but each of us puts these needs in a different order in accordance with our core values. Once you discover which needs matter the most to your partner, you’ll know how to communicate with your partner and in a way that fulfills them.
The first human need is the need for certainty. It’s this need that drives us to seek out pleasure and avoid pain, stress and emotional risks. Ask yourself these questions: How secure is my partner feeling in our relationship? We all find safety and comfort in different things. Be open with your partner about what gives them certainty and makes them feel stable.
The second human need that affects communication and relationships is the need for variety. Uncertainty isn’t always scary if you know how to communicate with your partner. Relationships need healthy challenges that allow partners to grow together. As you learn how to communicate better, you’ll find that variety keeps things fun and exciting with your partner.
Significance is the third human need: We all need to feel unique and important. Communication is key to this particular desire because your partner needs to know that you need them, in a singular way – that they fulfill your needs in ways that only they can. How do you demonstrate to your partner, not just tell them, that they are significant to you? You can show them through loving touch, offering them support when they need it and spending quality time with them.
The fourth basic human need is for connection and love. Every human needs to feel connected with others. Effective communication in relationships lets us know that we are loved and can make us feel at our most alive, but absence of love can cause pain like nothing else can. Too often we automatically say “I love you” in order to solve a conflict with our partners and forget to show love in a real, tangible way that speaks to our partner’s needs. Reverse this pattern: Consciously show your partner that you love them every day, in a way that speaks to their personal preferences and needs. Learning how to improve communication in a relationship is about realizing what “language” your partner best understands and giving them love in that way.
Growth is the fifth human need. The human experience is one of motion and without constant growth, our relationships will become stale. We constantly endeavor to evolve along the different paths that interest us the most, whether these are emotional, intellectual, spiritual or otherwise. Your partner has the need for growth as much as you do and when we learn how to communicate better, we can also learn how to better grow together. When was the last time you supported your partner’s growth in the areas that they are most passionate about? How can you continue to support them to the fullest?
The sixth and final human need is contribution and giving. Remember, the secret to living is giving. Contribution is our source of meaning – it determines who we become and solidifies our legacy, who we are and our role in the world. Consider what you give to your partner and how you can give more. Are you giving your time? Your undivided attention? The benefit of the doubt? A second chance? When communication in relationships is strong, both partners are able to continually come up with new and better ways of contributing to the other’s happiness.
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4. Learn the three keys to passion and intimacy
The strongest relationships have polarity: opposing masculine and feminine energies that compliment each other. When the needs of either person aren’t being met, that person will put on a “mask” of the opposing energy and close off from their partner. But when polarity in relationships is fully embraced, a beautiful connection is created.
Masculine and feminine energies each have three key needs that must be met. Feminine energies need to feel seen – they want you to be present with them and appreciate them. They need to feel understood, through listening and validation. And they need to feel safe, both physically and emotionally.
Masculine energies need to feel appreciated, through praise and celebration. They need to feel free, not micromanaged or controlled. And they need to feel opened up to – so share your emotions and affection freely.
Communication in relationships is about first fulfilling your partner’s needs. When you do that, they will be more open to communicating and connecting with you to create the relationship you both desire.
5. Determine if your partner’s needs are being met
There is one surefire way to know if your partner is getting their needs met in your relationship: ask the right questions and then deeply listen to the answers. Reflect on what your partner says, and if you’re not sure what he or she means, then ask by restating their point and asking if you understand correctly. The key to how to communicate in a relationship is often not in the actual verbal communication at all – it’s in the way we listen to our partner.
Your partner may be communicating exactly what the problem is, but if you’re not listening, you’ll miss it. Resist the pull of just waiting for your partner to finish what they’re saying so you can launch into your “turn.” That isn’t listening, it’s waiting to talk. Instead, listen with a calm, open mind and really hear what they are saying to you. This will not only help you learn how to communicate better, but will also enable you to connect with your partner on a deeper level.
6. Be honest and open
Being honest and open is at the top of the list for how to improve communication in a relationship. Say what you mean, and make your feelings and your needs clear. Retreating from conflict seems deceptively safe and comfortable, but it’s no substitute for trust in a relationship and it will never help you learn how to communicate better. Walking away from an argument is a temporary way to deal with an ongoing communication issue and must only be done to achieve a brief cooling-down period. When you disagree with your partner, you must be able to trust that what you say will be heard and respected, and so does your partner.
If you or your partner (or both of you) is averse to conflict, you can find yourselves burying your emotions to please each other and avoid problems. This temporary peacekeeping band-aid turns a two-way relationship into a one-way street, and that’s not a sustainable outcome. The happiness and intimacy you used to share will gradually erode, and it will take the relationship with it. Instead of ignoring issues, it’s crucial that you both learn how to communicate better with each other.
7. Be present in your relationship
To improve communication in relationships and truly understand what your partner is telling you, be present. Put time aside and dedicate yourself 100% to communicating with your partner. They must truly feel that they have your full attention and that they are your number one priority.
It’s difficult to listen and be fully present, aware and mindful when you’re angry and stressed or are working on things that take time away from your relationship. This is a part of life, but it’s important to realize that it’s not an excuse for neglecting communication in relationships. Remember that intimacy, love and trust are built when times are hard, not when they’re easy. If we gave up at every sign of resistance, we would never progress and evolve. Seize these opportunities to learn how to deal with conflict and stress in a healthy manner and watch as you grow and flourish with your partner.
8. Let things go
Resist letting a discussion about what’s happening now devolve into a rehash of every wrong that has ever happened between you and your partner. This is the opposite of loving and effective communication in relationships. Instead, assess the present situation and identify what you can do at this moment. Pause and remember why you’re here, and remember that your goal, the outcome that you value, is to strengthen your relationship, build intimacy and learn how to communicate better. There’s nothing either of you can do about the past right now, so let it go.
How to communicate better is about more than saying the right things. Also be aware of your body language. You could offer all the loving and supportive words in the world to your partner, but if your arms are crossed over your chest and you have a scowl on your face, your partner is unlikely to respond favorably. How to communicate in a relationship means listening, loving and supporting with your whole being. Lean toward your partner, keep your face relaxed and open and touch them in a gentle manner. Show them through all your words, actions and expressions that you love them even if you are in conflict.
9. Break negative patterns
You know what your partner needs and have thought about their preferred communication style, but there’s something else that affects communication in relationships: how you’re speaking. Experts on communication break down the way we talk into pitch, pace, volume and timbre. The next time you’re in a disagreement with your partner, be mindful and make conscious efforts to modulate these aspects of your voice.
A voice that is overly high-pitched sounds defensive and immature. Also, if you end a sentence with a higher pitch, it sounds like a question; don’t do this unless you’re actually asking a question, or you risk instilling doubt in your partner.
Pace just means how fast you’re talking. Take a deep breath and slow down – especially when you’re disagreeing. Speak calmly and clearly to get your message across.
Pay attention to volume, especially volume “creep,” and avoid competing to be heard – competition only leads to shouting and miscommunication. Being louder won’t help you communicate with your partner. If your partner is speaking, listen.
Timbre refers to your voice’s emotional quality, attitude and tone. Pay careful attention to this, and watch for red flag timbres like sarcasm that can erode communication in relationships and cause distrust between partners.
When things do get out of hand, break the pattern: Be playful and use humor in a way that keeps the conversation flowing in the right direction. Injecting humor into the situation can make it feel less dire and can yield amazing results for the two of you. That’s because humor helps you regain perspective and balance; it is an essential component of healthy communication in relationships. It also relieves stress and improves your physical happiness in your everyday life. The biggest benefit to laughing in this context is that it reminds you that you love just being together with your partner. It reminds you that you can enjoy your time together, even when things seem challenging.
When learning how to communicate in a relationship, it’s important to break the pattern of hostility, hurt and retreat. For example, when you catch yourself raising your voice or being sarcastic, change your tone. If you’re using “you” repeatedly and blaming your partner, switch to “I” and “me,” or better yet, “we.” There’s no point in offloading all your relationship’s issues on to your partner. There are two people in every relationship, so don’t shift the blame to be entirely on their shoulders.
Breaking the pattern is a powerful way of reframing the discussion and bringing it back to a level where you can get to what matters. Communication in relationships is all about what your partner’s needs are, what your needs are and how you can both feel fulfilled from your relationship.
10. Start over
Sometimes no matter how much you want to improve communication in a relationship, an argument happens. This is when it’s most essential to be aware of your negative patterns and start over before they become destructive.
Tony often shares an incredible story about Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan that speaks to the power of patterns. If you were born before the mid-80s, you remember the Cold War. It was a defining period of world history when two superpowers, with opposite ideologies – i.e., differences in values – confronted each other in a tense political conflict that could, at any point, tip toward war. It was not a productive relationship and in the late-80s the leaders of the two powers met in a series of talks that would forever shape the course of human history.
But, the story of how Reagan, president of the United States, and Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, resolved the conflict did not start as well as you might think. Gorbachev and Reagan found themselves in the middle of a heated discussion on the merits and demerits of capitalism and communism. Like any discussion on politics, it was going nowhere and neither leader was sure how to communicate better with the other.
Tony had the pleasure of speaking to both Reagan and Gorbachev years after and he asked them, “What was the moment you decided for peace?” Gorbachev related that, in the middle of the argument, Reagan stood and walked away, only to suddenly turn and exclaim, “Okay, let’s try this again. I’m Ronald!” If Reagan and Gorbachev can start over after so much animosity, there’s hope for communication in your relationship, too.
Always remember that you are together because you make each other smile. Problems are obstacles that need surmounting, and while it’s easy to give up, the truth is that these are the moments that will define your relationship. Listen to your partner, discover the needs they value the most and fulfill them. When you understand that giving is the secret to a fulfilling relationship, you’ll put constant work into how to communicate with your partner in a way they can understand.
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