Almost every couple that I see in my practice comes in with the goal of wanting to fix communication in their relationship. It’s understandable, because not feeling heard and understood by your partner is distressing and often leads to feeling disconnected from each other.
Learning healthy communication skills can dramatically shift your relationship, increasing trust with your partner and helping you feel more bonded. Feeling heard, understood and seen by your partner in a new way also increases the good stuff, such as joy and intimacy.
However, improving communication requires much more than the stereotypical tips such as using “I” statements and saying one positive for every negative. It’s not as easy as picking up a self-help book and vowing to remember those tips in the next disagreement. We have to go a little deeper and understand that we all have automatic reactions that we can learn to shift with a little patience.
All couples get caught in their own unique “cycle of conflict”, if you start paying attention, you’ll see your arguments play out pretty much the same way, whether about big things or little things. In my work with couples, we identify that cycle, understand it and then that gives couples the power to shift and communicate in a new way.
I’ve put together my top 5 communication strategies for couples that you can start using right away. These are areas that almost all couples can do some work on to improve. Just keep in mind that making these shifts is kind of like building a new muscle, it requires patience with yourself and each other.
- Slow Down – most couples ramp up their tone and pacing in conflict. This results in what I call a “ping pong match”. You are both batting things back and forth so fast that no one can take anything in. Slow way down as soon as you can catch this happening. One way of doing this is limiting your responses to each other to a sentence or two. It may feel awkward at first, but a slower pace will calm the nervous system and help you be more thoughtful in your responses to each other.
- Dive Below Anger – anger is a quick go-to emotion in conflict and an easy place to get stuck. However, there are often fears, wants or needs under that anger that are getting lost. Try pausing and checking in on these more vulnerable feelings or wishes and try expresses those instead.
- Switch Sides – one strategy I love for couples is having them switch sides. When you are in a stuck spot, pause take out a piece of paper and write down what the disagreement is about from your partner’s point of view. What are they wanting, needing, saying, etc. Stepping into their shoes and taking up their side of the disagreement can provide a helpful, new perspective.
- Rewind and Re-Do – so, you got into your cycle of conflict and it went the same as always? That’s ok, think about what you wish you did or said differently and go back and try it. You can always rewind once the conflict has ended and tempers have cooled and re-do the conversation with fresh eyes. The more you practice this, the more likely you’ll be able to implement these new ways closer to in the moment.
- Know Your Position – arguing with your partner is distressing and in order to protect the relationship people usually choose one of two options – withdraw or pursue. The withdrawer leaves the conversation, trying to prevent it from escalating further. The pursuer wants to talk and solve the problem now. Both have good intentions of ending he argument but withdrawing often triggers the pursuer and the pursuer triggers the withdrawer, creating a tricky situation. The first step in breaking out of this cycle is understanding which position you take in disagreements and being able to communicate about it when you are not in conflict.
If you’d like to go a little deeper and try out some of these communication tips, check out my 5-Day Communication Tune Up, with several communication exercises I put together for couples. Go to https://thehappycoupleplan.com/5-day-couples-communication-tune-up/ and use the password: 5dayhappycouple
Author: Stephanie Macadaan
I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. I love working with couples and individuals to find strength, growth and empowerment through their struggles and challenges.