communication issues

How to Improve Communication in Your Relationship

communication issues

 

One of the first questions couples counselors ask couples at the beginning of treatment is some variation of, “What issues brought you here today?” Nine out of ten couples, couples answer “communication issues!” almost in unision. Couples typically struggle much more when the couples therapist follows up by asking, “What communication issues are you experiencing?” What are communication issues? How do couples learn to communicate better in their relationships? Can you really improve communication in your relationship and learn to argue better and increase closeness?

Improving Everyday Communication in Your Relationship

It often isn’t the major fights or blowouts that leave a couple feeling detached or disconnected from each other, but a gradual decline in the quality of a couple’s ability to communicate.  As time goes on, it becomes easier and easier to pay less attention to the ways in which we communication our affection or appreciation for one another because it “should be obvious” how we feel, or because we believe the other person “should know that we love him/her.”  Problems in communication that don’t revolve around a specific conflict in the relationship can be difficult to pinpoint as the culprit of a couple’s trouble because they often aren’t easy problems to point to.  Instead, the couple in question may feel a diffused uneasiness, disinterest, or a feeling that something is “missing.”  Here are some tips that often help couples to improve their communication on an everyday basis in ways that foster connection, affection, and a feeling of closeness with one’s partner.

 

Avoid Distractions When Communicating with Your Partner

Here’s a simple exercise to illustrate the importance of avoiding distractions while communicating.  Imagine this: a friend that you haven’t seen in awhile has just asked you about what is new in your life.  As you begin to tell stories about the recent events in your life, your friend reaches into his or her pocket, pulls out a cell phone, and begins to scroll through social media.  How do you feel?  What do you do?  Typically, this sort of interaction leaves people feeling mildly hurt, offended, rejected, or otherwise upset.  The most common reaction is to feel as though what we have to say isn’t important to the person to whom we’re speaking.  Given the mild nature of this offense, we might not complain overtly, but rather are more likely to disengage or shorten the story—nobody wants to share the details of their life story to someone who isn’t paying attention.

Very often, these interactions are isolated events that are made up for by other more attentive interactions.  Over time, however, the feelings of unimportance can build if interactions are more and more distracted.  For many couples—especially those faced with the many distractions of parenthood—this can become a major obstacle to feeling heard and valued.  Putting aside the cell phone, setting down the newspaper, muting the TV, and even simply making a conscious effort to look at your significant other while they are talking can have a huge impact on that person’s experience during everyday communication.

 

Pay Attention and Praise the Good in Your Partner

Along those same lines, paying more attention to your partner instead of extraneous distractions provides opportunities for you to begin to notice and acknowledge your partner.  Communication is a two-way street, so listening is only half the battle.  Psychologist and relationship expert Dr. John Gottman has described a “magic ratio” of 5 positive interactions to compensate for each negative interaction—so for every fight, argument, or criticism, a couple that flourishes has five positive interactions in which they may compliment each other, express affection for each other, or otherwise demonstrate the the other person matters.  By being intentional about paying attention to each other, you gain more opportunities to create these positive interactions.  The more specifically you’re able to compliment or acknowledge your partner, the better—sometimes “you’re so smart!” is good, but “I’m so impressed you were able to come up with that solution!  You’re so smart.  I really appreciate that,” is even better.

 

Ask Yourself: Can It Wait?

Distractions come up in many ways, and may not always be external.  Sometimes we may be looking at our partner, but our mind is elsewhere—distracted by thoughts of our to-do list or something else that happened earlier.  To this end, our partner might say something that elicits a “that reminds me” moment that derails the otherwise attentive conversation.  For example:

John: “So then what happened?”

Jane: “I had to drive all the way back to the store to return it and get the correct size!”

John: “Oh—that reminds me—did you fill up the car with gas?  I have to make an early start tomorrow.”

Jane: “I… what? No, I didn’t think to…”

John: “Jane! This always happens! Now I have to leave even earlier tomorrow to get gas before I make the long drive…”

John’s request is a reasonable one, but by shifting the conversation in accordance with his own private thought process, he missed an important opportunity for a positive interaction with Jane.  Let’s try again:

John: “So then what happened?”

Jane: “I had to drive all the way back to the store to return it and get the correct size!”

John: “You drove all the way to the mall and back twice in one day?  Wow.  I bet that was annoying.  I really appreciate you doing that though—that really saves me so much time.”

John is going to have to put gas in the car tomorrow, and may still feel the need to ask Jane not to bring the car home empty, but it can wait—it doesn’t need to be said right away, much less right in the middle of Jane’s story.  By letting go of this opportunity, he allows for this positive interaction to occur between them in which he acknowledges Jane’s hard work and expresses gratitude for her efforts instead of criticizing her behavior.  This also allows him to address the problem later, when he isn’t as frustrated and can more calmly think about how he wants to present and address the problem.

 

No One Can Read Your Mind. Ask for What You Need.

As I have said above, communication is a two-way street.  Sometimes we aren’t immediately equipped to communicate in a way that our loved one might need, so we must learn how to do so.  Very often, one or both partners may make sincere efforts to improve communication, but may not have a clear understanding of exactly how to do so.  To this end, it can often be helpful for partners to express to each other what did or did not work.  In the example above, Jane might express frustration or hurt at her story being derailed by criticism, or she might express gratitude for John noticing her hard work.  She might offer feedback by saying “It really hurt my feelings when you jumped my case during that story.  I know it’s an inconvenience for you to fill up the car on your way out of town, and I’m sorry, but I felt like we could have waited until afterward to discuss that.”  This is the beginning of a larger conversation, but this feedback alone provides important information about how John’s communication affects Jane, which John can then use to inform his approach to fostering connection between them.

Sometimes, this isn’t clear.  We may not know what we need, but rather may only know that something isn’t working.  To this end, meeting with a couples counselor can help to not only improve communication, but otherwise note the cyclical patterns in play that can be addressed and adjusted in order to improve a couple’s day-to-day. Bergen Counseling Center is one resource for couples counseling in Chicago where communication skills are just one of the many areas of focus, and where many couples begin to feel change takes place.  If you’re interested in learning more, use the contact box on this page to reach out to a therapist for more information.

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