Netflix seems to just “get” you. It knows when you need a good laugh, a good cry or a feel-good story. Your partner, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to understand you when you’re sharing certain thoughts, feelings, needs or ideas. They hear you, but don’t seem to understand you.
Of course, you love each other, but that doesn’t seem to make you both expert communicators. You often feel like you’re speaking different languages, which makes you get defensive and frustrated with each other. It doesn’t matter that you’re around each other more than ever during the pandemic. You can be around each other 24/7 and still not feel understood by each other.
But you’re not alone. Communication is by far the #1 challenge that couples face and report, regardless of how long they’ve been together. We have all heard cliches like, “communication is the key to a relationship,” but that doesn’t help anyone understand what truly healthy communication looks like in real life.
Here’s a modern guide to working on your communication and actually enjoying the process together.
1. Create a positive goal around communication
No one wants to feel like they’re being changed or fixed by their partner. Rather than focusing on the negative or what isn’t going the way you want it to, create a goal around your communication.
For example, “We will spend 30 minutes per week talking openly about how we feel in the relationship and what we each need.” This is more constructive and empowering than continuing to say things like, “You never listen to me!”
2. Don’t blindside your partner with conversations when you both are busy
Bringing up important topics at inconvenient times inevitably leads to one or both of you getting defensive. When you both are in bed trying to relax after a long day, or when you are swiftly making breakfast for the entire family, your partner probably isn’t mentally prepared for a Big Conversation—and they may unconsciously react in a less than kind way.
We’re all busy and have a lot on our plates—especially during the pandemic—but blindsiding your partner in the 5 minutes you have together is a recipe for disaster. Instead, proactively tell them that there is a specific topic you need to talk about and schedule a time where you both can be present and calm with each other.
3. Tell your partner whether you’d like them to just listen or provide feedback
Do you feel invalidated because your partner gets right into “fix it” mode? That’s super common, and it leads to not feeling understood. The antidote is to set your partner up for success by letting them know whether you need them to just listen to you, or offer their input. This not only helps them know what you need, but it also prevents you from feeling like they stepped over your feelings.
4. Change your environment for sensitive topics
You know those topics that always seem to trigger a disagreement between you two? Yeah, those. Bringing up sensitive topics in the same location as a past disagreement will trigger the memory of the fight—and make it harder to stay calm and present. Instead, go to a neutral, fun or positive-feeling space to talk about tricky subjects. It’s even better if you have the conversation while on a walk somewhere in nature, like a park or a nearby trail.
5. Focus on being understood, not necessarily on reaching agreement.
There will be times that you two don’t see things the same way, and that’s okay. Sometimes the most bonding, constructive thing is to just listen to understand their perspective. Shift your focus to making your partner feel understood, rather than fighting for why your thoughts are more valid. This shift will lead to both of you feeling safe to share in the relationship.
Your communication with your partner won’t improve if you just hope it will get better: Your relationship needs your active participation and attention to shift from unhealthy communication patterns to more constructive habits.
But working on your communication doesn’t have to feel exhausting or mean you have to go to couples counseling. Communication, like golf or gardening, is a skill that can be learned. You can experience drastically more joy and satisfaction with your partner if you bring even 5% more attention to how you’re communicating.