How to Have Better Conversations With Your Partner
Close relationships require intimacy and trust. This is especially true of romantic relationships. While your connection with your significant other may be the strongest in your life, it may be (unbeknownst to either of you) causing anxiety and distress.
If conflict with your partner isn’t handled well, it can cause troubling and destructive resentment and can ultimately lead to a crisis in your relationship. There are two people in every relationship, and each comes to the couple with their own communication styles, relationship history and expectations, and preconceived notions. Developing healthy and open communication within a romantic relationship takes work and practice. When addressing and working through tense topics or even everyday conversations with your partner, being mindful of a few key points can help you to maintain healthy and productive modes of communication.
If you’re in the midst of a conflict, you may be tempted to follow the “count to ten” rule. If that is done within a few moments or even minutes, it allows for your emotions to cool off and for your mind to focus and possibly be more present. However, if “10 seconds” turns into an afternoon (or longer), this borders on avoidance behavior. Give yourself time to collect yourself, but don’t allow your arguments to stay “on pause” for so long that your partner feels as though they are left holding an emotional bag on their own or that disputes and disagreements are never resolved. In straightforward terms, if you don’t address a conflict, you risk letting things fester and grow into a more significant problem.
Here’s a tip. When you do tackle a problem, avoid “but” sentences. In other words, be direct. Don’t soften the “bad news” with a “but.” The use of a “but” signals to your partner that a critical comment or complaint is coming, setting you both up for a conflict where there doesn’t need to be one. By directly addressing the issue, you’ll be able to begin working towards a positive solution immediately.
If you do want to soften the “blow” a bit, try to start directly with the problem. For example, if you don’t like that your partner is on their phone at dinner, avoid tackling it like this: “I love having dinner with you, but I hate that you’re always on your phone.” Instead, start with the problem first: “I don’t like that you’re on your phone during dinner because I want to spend quality time together, one on one.” With this approach, you’re facing the problem head-on while still letting your partner know that you love them and that this change you’re asking for is for the betterment of the relationship. This approach will be especially helpful when tackling more complicated topics like finances or sexual intimacy.
Another reason you should resist the urge to avoid conflict is that you may find that the longer you “let things go,” the more likely you are to erupt down the road, seemingly out of the blue. If at the start it’s a small problem or annoyance, or even a small desire, the longer you avoid speaking about it to your partner, the more it will bother you. It will begin to cause resentment and become a point of contention for you. When you can no longer bottle up the way the situation makes you feel, neither of you will be mentally or emotionally prepared for the conversation if it happens well after the first moment.
Instead, deal with the issue directly. Begin the conversation by stating the problem and that it’s about your point of view or feelings about the situation rather than painting the issue as a fact. So, reexploring the phone at the dinner table issue, addressing it as follows can be helpful: “I’d like to discuss how I feel about the way we spend time together.” This makes the conversation about you as a couple and can act as a catalyst for a larger conversation about your partner’s phone use and about the time you spend together. Keep in mind that whenever addressing something that gets under your skin or reflects a desire for change, you should bring up the topic at a peaceful, neutral time. Do avoid bringing up this kind of conversation in the heat of a separate argument or when you’re restricted by time, such as right before work.
Practice active listening and use feedback
It’s surprisingly difficult to be fully present while engaging in conversation with someone else — especially when the situation is tense. When speaking with your partner about an important topic or a point of conflict, it’s critical to practice active listening. Avoid distractions, and make sure actually to listen to your partner. This means attending to their words and the context in which they are spoken, and not using the time you’re not talking just to formulate how you’re going to rebut their statements. Take in everything they say and pay attention to what they’re saying with an open heart and mind.
Start by setting that intention for yourself. Tell yourself that you want to hear what your partner is saying, you want to understand their point of view, and you want to learn what they’re feeling. You can also convey to your partner that you’re listening through your body language. Keep eye contact, face your partner rather than sitting sideways, and lean in towards them as they speak. Avoid fidgeting, tapping your fingers or feet, and don’t play with other objects such as your phone, pens, or TV remote.
In addition to actively listening to what your partner is saying, help them to understand that you’re paying attention and making an active attempt to understand them. The first way to do this is by restating what your partner has said to show that you were listening and that you comprehend what they’re trying to convey. This will go a long way to help your partner feel validated and heard. Even if you don’t fully understand or agree with what they’ve said, starting here lays the groundwork for a healthy conversation. For example, you can start by saying, “From what you’ve said, I understand that you’re upset with me for not paying attention to you at dinner.”
If that’s not the main issue, this opens a door for your partner to clarify and to course correct the conversation. This way, you’ll avoid talking in circles and instead get right to the heart of the issue. When it is your turn to express what has been upsetting you, your partner will be more likely to extend you the same respect and care. This skill is not natural to immediately master, so be compassionate with yourself and your partner as you make efforts to give each other time and space to talk and be heard. Seeking therapy for yourself is a great way to improve your relationship.
Understanding your partner vs. being understood yourself
Making it your priority to understand your partner and their point of view can set the groundwork for open and more productive communication. While it is profoundly satisfying to be heard and understood, developing the skills to change your focus from wanting to be understood yourself to wanting to understand your partner will improve your empathy for your partner and will help you with active listening.
This shift has significant consequences. If you’re seeking first to be understood, you might get stuck expressing how you feel attacked at the moment. This will blunt your ability to perceive the possibility that if your partner is angry, there’s a good chance that their anger is a manifestation of a different emotion such as hurt or fear. Holding the thought in your mind to first understand your partner can help you better know where they are coming from and avoid feeling attacked.
Create more emotional intimacy and trust
Emotionally charged, difficult conversations are more easily navigated when emotional intimacy and trust have been established before the discussion. In a sense, trust and emotional ties grant each of you the space to hold that the other is coming into the conversation trying their best. Spend time engaging in a hobby with your partner that you both enjoy, or go somewhere you both love.
Also, make sure that your partner feels valued and appreciated. Spend time communicating to your partner the things that you admire in them and show them that you recognize all that they do for you. These things often get lost in the shuffle of day-to-day life with your partner, but they remain important. Making your partner feel appreciated can help them trust that the conversation isn’t headed towards crisis when the time comes to discuss your issue. You can also build trust and intimacy with your partner by asking them for advice and accepting their influence. If you’re a writer, ask your partner to read over your work and offer suggestions, should this be something you feel comfortable with. Alternatively, if you’re struggling with something at work, you can ask for their thoughts on the matter.
Sharing a part of your world with your partner can help them feel that you value their perspective and opinion, and will show them that you consider their influence in your life to be vital. During a difficult conversation, you may feel disconnected from your partner, as emotions become heated and feelings are hurt. This is also a consequence of your body and brain ramping up due to emotional stress.
Take a moment to bring connection and intimacy back into the relationship by reaching out to your partner in a physical way. Holding your partner’s hand or putting your arm around their shoulder can help signal to your partner that you love them and that you are present. However, if the conversation is particularly heated, ask before engaging in physical touch as this may push your partner further away.
Do your best to acknowledge your feelings. Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. For example, you can say, “I feel upset that we aren’t sharing as many connected moments as we used to.” Contrast that with, “You’re always on your phone, and I’m sick of it!”, which is likely going to lead to your partner feeling attacked and unable to continue the conversation without defending themselves. Conversely, beginning with “I” signals to your partner that this is not an attack on them but rather a moment for you to express how their actions have affected you.
Relatedly, take ownership of when something is your fault and apologize. Though it might not always feel that way at the moment, there is no shame in apologizing. This validates your partner’s feelings, and taking responsibility for your actions and statements can go a very long way in building trust. Be compassionate with yourself when you make mistakes. This will help you admit to faults and errors, and experience less shame when you should apologize to your partner.
Occasionally during tough conversations, things can get overheated and tense. In these moments, break the ice with a little bit of fun. It can be anything from making a funny face to bringing up an inside joke. A small joke can sometimes be enough to bring a conversation from the brink of a full-blown fight into the realm of a constructive conversation. Only you can be the judge of when this is appropriate, and only you have a good guess as to how your partner will react. However, if you find that a conversation is quickly taking a turn towards the negative, lightening the situation is something to consider.
Find your common goals
During an argument or tense conversation, the outcome can be determined by your ability — as a couple — to decide what the most desirable result of the talk will be. If you enter the conversations with differing goals, then neither of you will likely feel satisfied by the end of the conversation. Your partner will have felt rushed, and you’ll have potentially agreed to something you wouldn’t have in another circumstance. However, if you enter the conversation with a clear goal in both of your minds, your discussion will feel less like conflict and more like a negotiation between two partners rather than two adversaries. The more emotionally triggering the conversation is, the more critical it is to have common goals for the discussion for both of you to leave the conversation feeling cared for and safe.
Explore couples therapy
If communication channels are blocked and you’re finding that you’re experiencing insurmountable problems in your relationship, it may be time to seek out a professional. It’s essential to keep in mind that many couples wait until the relationship is on the verge of a crisis before entering therapy. In fact, on average, couples wait over six years of being unhappy before seeking help. So if you and your partner are having significant problems, the sooner you learn new ways of understanding each other, the better.
Bringing up couples therapy to your partner
Couples therapy can be a great way to bond with your partner and to resolve any resentments you may have. However, bringing up the topic of entering therapy with your significant other can feel daunting and even frightening. When broaching the topic of conversation, make sure to assure your partner that this isn’t an indication that you’re planning to leave them. Instead, tell them the truth: There’s an issue or problem in your relationship and in the way you both communicate, and that those issues are holding the two of you back. Underscore that you want to bring in a third person to help guide the conversation. Be sure to be honest and vulnerable at the moment. Admit to your partner that seeking a couples therapist feels a bit scary, that and you’re unsure of what it will be like. That will help you to communicate that you and your partner will learn together.
You want to make sure your partner sees that you’re invested in the relationship and that this is your best solution to the problems you’ve been facing. Also, make sure to identify the problem the best you can when you bring up couples therapy. Do you both blow up when you fight? Do you shut down when there’s a conflict? Whatever the issue is, clearly naming it will help you both set a goal for couples therapy and help your partner to understand why you’re suggesting that you seek it.
You can also explain to your partner that couples therapy has many benefits. In addition to building better lines of communication as a couple, you’ll be provided a neutral space in which you can talk about your problems and build a foundation for conversations in the future. Every couple is comprised of two individuals who bring their own histories and communication styles to the union, and that can inherently cause problems. Couples therapy can help you develop strong bonds, create a clear understanding of each other’s way of communicating, and a mutual appreciation of each other’s needs.
Enter therapy as a team
Once you’ve both identified what you think the conflict is — with the guidance of your couples therapist— you can treat couples therapy as a team project. If you’re both on the same page about what you want out of couples therapy, it will be much more effective. Often the beginning of couples counseling is to better understand, name, and express what each of you wants out of the relationship. Whether your goal is to speak more candidly with each other without fear of fighting or to bring intimacy back into the relationship, bring that to the therapy room. If you feel united in your goals, there’s a higher chance that you’ll achieve them and come out of the experience stronger for it.
What to expect from therapy
During your first session, your therapist in NYC will likely ask about what brought you into therapy and about your goals. It’s vital that the two of you take the time to prepare for these questions. If you’ve ever been in one-on-one therapy, then this should be a familiar line of questioning. Also, similar to one-on-one therapy, your therapist will probably ask both of you a few questions about your history to understand you as individuals. Be sure to be as open and honest with your therapist during this line of questioning.
The first few visits with your therapist may be a bit uncomfortable. After all, addressing your insecurities as a couple and your problems isn’t exactly fun. Though the first few sessions may feel like they’re not going anywhere, trust the process and stick with it.
Another thing to keep in mind is that during your sessions, you may learn things about your partner that you never knew before, and you may express an opinion that you never allowed yourself to acknowledge. In these moments, try to stay free from judgment and keep an open mind. Ask your therapist for help with that if it proves difficult.
Working with your therapist may take weeks, months, or even years to cover everything you want to address. Just remember that it’s a process worth sticking around for.
‘Graduating’ from therapy
After being in therapy for a while, you and your partner may find that you no longer feel you require the help of your therapist to work through your problems. Ending your therapy consciously is a powerful experience. Though it’s difficult to know precisely when your therapy will be complete, it may become apparent to both you and your partner, as well as your therapist, that you’re ready to ‘graduate.’ If a crisis brought you to therapy and that crisis has been averted, that may be enough of a reason.
However, the process of resolving this kind of crisis may take a year or longer. If you and your partner feel that you’re still working on that crisis, don’t quit therapy quite yet. You may feel when working with your therapist that your therapeutic relationship is no longer focused nor energetic. You may think that you’re covering and recovering old topics. If this happens, you may not be ready to finish therapy quite yet. Instead, bring this information to your therapist’s attention. There may be something else at play that has yet to be addressed.
If you and your partner feel like you have learned enough from therapy and can “take it from here,” then it may be time to say goodbye to your therapist. Just remember, if ever you reach another impasse, you can always return to therapy, and that is not a failure by any means, but rather another opportunity to grow as a couple.
Try not to convince yourself that all is lost. If you find yourself thinking that the situation is utterly hopeless, you’ll begin misinterpreting even the smallest comments your partner makes with a negative lens. Your partner may want to approach you with a conversation around their needs and desires, and you won’t be able to have a meaningful conversation if you’ve already convinced yourself that it’s pointless to engage.
Likewise, this mindset may also prevent you from bringing up important conversations because you’ll have assured yourself that there is no point in trying. With this mindset, your relationship will only stagnate and, yes, all may be lost.
Instead, remind yourself that as you and your partner are working through difficult conversations, the two of you are on this journey together. Staying aware of the fact that you’re two individuals that want the same result (a satisfying and meaningful relationship) will help you and your partner remain optimistic — even during the most troubling conversations.
Whether you’re facing a minor disagreement or a larger problem, remember that you and your partner are ultimately working together to achieve the same goals. As long as you’re working in tandem, you’ll be OK. Just keep these tips in mind and remember that should you ever face an insurmountable disagreement, couples therapists are always a good option. At the Therapy Group of NYC we know, as with any change of habit or behavior, practice is vital. Try these strategies and remember that you and your partner are both human; you’re bound to make mistakes. The more you employ these methods, the more automatic they will be, and the more you and your partner will be able to have those trickier conversations constructively and collaboratively.