Let’s Talk This Out: 8 Areas of Communication for Couples to Focus On
Communication. Every couple has to do it, and yet we all have a lot to learn when it comes to doing it. Each relationship takes on its own unique communication style. While not set in stone, a lot of couples keep their same communication patterns that emerged in the early stages of their relationship. This means there are many couples not maintaining their communication strategies.
As our relationship grows and progresses, the needs that it has and the stressors it endures will change. Each partner in the relationship also changes, as their life experiences lead to individual growth. With all of these changes, it becomes prudent that as a couple we adapt and work on our communication patterns as well. Yet, we tend to run on auto-pilot with our communication.
What does communication do for our relationship? It allows us to share ideas, work on goals, bring up disagreements, and find solutions. Our communication can also have detrimental effects on our relationship. It can lead to arguments, name-calling, avoiding issues, and tearing one another down. As an Empowered Couple, we need to continually look at our communication practices to make sure that we are working together as a team rather than pulling us apart.
We all have to communicate as we navigate our lives. It is an essential part of human interaction and has an amazing power to bring us together. Still, it is also an area of our lives that we can start to assume our skills are fine and any struggles in communicating are on the other party. Not hard to see why this type of assumption would not work well in a relationship! For something that happens so often, it sure is tricky, isn’t it?
Communication is not just difficult because it requires the exchange of two or more parties; rather, it also has a lot of moving parts. We often overlook the smaller components that add up to make effective communication happen. To help empower your relationship, it is important that you and your partner both work on the different components of communication. Let’s dispel the myth now, it is not one of us that needs to work on our communication, it is both of us. It is our relationship, which means it’s both partners responsibility!
Let’s put communication under the microscope and look at its different components. Reflect on these different areas in your relationship, looking for both what you and your partner do well and the areas for further growth. Remember, our communication patterns are not set in stone, even if it feels that way at times. They can be changed; it is just up to us to put in the work. Here are eight areas of communication that when worked on can empower and transform our relationship.
#1: Our Body Language
A majority of the messages we attempt to send to our partners are not in the words we choose; it is our nonverbal cues. Body language is something our brains are wired to look at and decipher. We use it to compare what the body is saying and the words that are being used. Some of the cues that come from body language are obvious, others are more subtle. We take in all this information and make an interpretation, which we will get to soon.
What does body language look like in action? There are many components to it. It can range from the way we stand or sit, fold our arms or let them hang, leaning in towards the other person or tilting back, slouching our shoulders or puffing them up. These, and other, bodily cues add depth to the message we are attempting to send to our partner. The message our body language sends out is the first received by our partners. When our body language and our words are out of line with one another, body language is typically seen as the more reliable way to understand the message.
In couples therapy, it is always interesting to ask, “when did the distance become a thing?” when a couple is sitting on opposite ends of a couch. They are shocked when that deduction is made, yet the body language is laying it out clearly. We need to make sure that our body language is sending out the message we are wanting!
We need to take some time to observe our body language. Do we tend to look more closed off in our body language, which sends out the message of not being interested or defensive? Are we relaxed and inviting our partner to express their thoughts with us? Obviously, it can be hard to gauge our own body language. This is where our partner can help us and we can help them. Work with each other to discuss what each other’s body language looks like and the messages that are being interpreted from it, which leads to our next area of communication.
#2: Our Interpretation of Body Language
As we begin to walk up to our partner to begin a conversation, we are scanning their body language to assess where they are. This process is done quickly, and frequently without us even being aware it is occurring. Have you ever walked into a room to talk to someone and you immediately knew it was going to be a bad idea, but you weren’t quite sure why? Chances are you made a call based on their body language.
This same thing occurs when we are with our partners, although with some variation. That variation comes from our history with our partner. If we have seen particular body language before and we remember the outcome, we will change our approach due to that. It doesn’t mean that we are 100% correct, but that doesn’t stop our brains from making that call. This is all related to the way that we interpret body language and make meaning out of it.
As soon as we make interpretations of our partner’s body language, ours will make a change. We may walk into a room open to having a dialogue, but if our partner is sitting there glaring at the floor with their arms folded tightly, our body language will change based on our interpretation. If we think they are mad at us, then our body language might reflect a defensive or closed off position. Or, if we are concerned about them, we might move in with a more caring approach. Either way, it is our interpretation of the body language rather than the facts of the situation.
What does this have to do with our relationship and its communication pattern? We need to ensure that we are not just going off our initial interpretation, which can be made in the blink of an eye. Rather, we need to be gathering information and giving our partner a chance, and vice versa. Keep in mind: body language influences interpretation which influences our body language which influences our partner’s interpretation and so on. Imagine what would happen if this cycle starts off on the wrong foot simply because of a misinterpretation!
#3: Our Tone
This one moves away from our body language and starts moving to the words we speak. Or, at least, how the words we say are delivered. Think of the phrase, “you were right.” Out loud or in your head, say that phrase with a bit of sarcasm behind it. Now make it genuine. What does it sound like if you give it an angry overtone? It’s the same three words, yet it delivers a different message depending on how you say it. Welcome to the power of our tone.
When working with couples, it is not uncommon for one partner to speak a comment where the words were right but the tone was wrong. This leads to their partner reacting defensively while leaving the speaker shocked. It is the same for tone as it is for body language: this part of communication shows a deeper level of the message than the words itself. When it comes to communicating, how we say it is even more important than what we say.
Keep note of the way you generally speak with your partner. What type of emotion is getting mixed in with the words? Does your tone indicate to your partner you are willing to work together or that you are on the defensive? Your words may be saying work with me, but your tone could be saying stay away. It is up to us to identify how our tone is impacting our relationship.
#4: The Speaking Speed Limit
Have you ever met someone that talked so fast you were lost in their words within a matter of moments? Did your heart rate increase with the need to sit down to get your balance back? Okay, that may be a bit of hyperbole, but it is true that the speed we use when talking influences the quality of our communication.
If we leave our partner trying to catch up to what we said, or we are the ones attempting to keep up, chances are a lot of the message we are attempting to send got lost. If we go to slow, well boredom creeps in and we are more likely to start looking around the room or on our phone, a sign to our partner that we no longer care about what is being said. The speed we use to speak with is very important.
We need to make sure that we are keeping our rate of speech at a pace that our partner can not only keep up with us, but is also gathering understanding. If we are concerned that they may not be keeping up, simply ask if you need to slow down or if everything is good. When we are the partner that is feeling left behind, hold a hand up and say something along the lines of, “I am trying to understand you, but am having a hard time keeping up, would you be able to slow down a bit, I can tell this is important to you and I do not want to miss it.”
When we have an important discussion, it is not a race. We need to take our time to make sure thoughts are expressed clearly and messages are received and interpreted correctly. Working on our speed of speaking can help ensure that we get to the solution together through increased validation and understanding.
#5: Speaking To, Rather than At, Our Partners
This area of communication is another part of the “how” we communicate and takes the tone to a different level. When we are in a heated conversation with our partners, if we allow ourselves to be overcome with intense emotions, and this combines with a negative tone, then we will begin talking at our partner. What does that mean? Quite simply, this is when we begin to tell our partner how things are going to be, what they are going to feel, how they are going to behave, and how things are going to go without any input from them.
It probably is not hard to put together that if we begin to talk at our partner, rather than to, we are no longer working as a team and are no longer headed towards solutions. We are going to create more distance in the relationship, put our partner on the defensive, and end the chances of that particular conversation having any value.
Blaming language is the easiest indicator that we have moved into the territory of talking at our partner rather than to them. “You always do this,” “you know this is your fault,” “if you could just pull it together,” or “you are the reason I’m doing this” are common types of phrases we might say when we are talking at our partner. At some point in the conversation we have probably felt disrespected, and this is how we are attempting to get back. It might feel good at that moment, but that momentary pseudo-win really just adds up to a dying relationship. You will not last as a couple when talking at each other becomes the common way of communication.
We need to learn how to talk to our partner, even when we are feeling disrespected or emotional. This allows the conversation to continue forward because we are keeping the conversation from becoming one-sided. Talking to our partner keeps respect in place, allows us to continue working as a team, and moves us towards solutions. Taking accountability for your actions, having language focused on your behavior, or as a couple in general, and seeking how to overcome the problem are features of talking to our partner. Remember, it is not just your partner’s responsibility, or just yours: it is both of your responsibilities to talk to one another rather than at each other.
#6: Using Accountability Language
This was hinted at in the last section with regards to talking to our partner rather than at them. When we are in a heated discussion with our partners, it is incredibly easy to bring up all their transgressions while leaving ourselves blameless. We are also more likely to do this when our partner has started using the blaming strategy as well! What we need to ask ourselves is whether or not this strategy is helping bring our relationship closer or pushing us apart?
Accountability language can be a hard thing to do in a relationship. It requires us to focus on the ways we have contributed to a situation and take responsibility for that. In a relationship, we both influence one another and have contributed to the situation. Instead of focusing only on our partner’s part, we look at ours and what we could have done differently and what we will do moving forward.
It can be difficult to look at our own actions and contributions to a situation. We may be scared our partner will jump on it and drive it in deep, or maybe we do not want to look at our own actions. The fact is the only person’s behavior we can change in a situation in our relationship is our own. We need to identify what we are responsible for and take accountability for it with our partner. This does not mean we shame ourselves; rather, we are using it as an asset to move towards solutions and bring our relationship even closer.
#7: Team Building Language
Team building language and accountability language can be a powerful combination. When we begin to search for solutions to our challenges together, we are using team building languages. As we work in ways to strengthen our connection and build each other up as partners, we are using team building language. The times we show compassion, forgiveness, and empathy to our partners, we are using team building language.
This type of communicating prioritizes our relationship over our individual egos. We focus on what will bring us closer and move us forward together rather than trying to win as an individual. If we try to score a win for us personally, the fact is we lose. Using language that focuses on working together increases the chances of our partner working with us rather than opposed. It does not matter who starts the team building language, it just needs to happen!
Think of the way you normally talk while in a heated conversation with your partner. Are you saying words that encourage you and your partner to work together, or does it bring a divide? As a couple, do you solve problems more often than you do not? Team building language could be one of the missing ingredients if it seems like your relationship gets stuck in the same cycle of not solving the problem. Find ways to use your verbal and nonverbal communication as a way to bring your team together through team building language!
#8: The Power of Listening
Listening is an essential part of the communication process. In couple’s therapy, this is the skill that I would work on most with each partner in the relationship. It is that essential, and it can be that difficult. The truth is we think we are better listeners than we actually are. Most of us do not realize it, but we tend to listen to a short amount of information while starting to formulate our response, while our partner is still talking! Think we miss some things? Absolutely!
The goal of listening to our partner should not be to get only the pieces we need to form an argument that fits our narrative. Instead, it needs to focus on understanding our partner and their view of the situation. When we work together and get a full understanding of both of our views, we now know what we are working with. If we are too focused on getting our quick responses in there, we derail finding solutions and we warp drive into disconnect.
It is true, listening is a process that takes a lot of time and can hurt at times when what we are listening about has us in it. However, it can help heal wounds and foster connection as it takes our relationship’s communication to a whole new level. Work on giving your partner the room to speak their views rather than trying to interrupt. Remember, their side of the story is as important to them as your side of the story is to you. Giving one another room to speak in a way that allows each other to feel heard will transform your relationship.
Listening requires us to set our ego aside and open our heart and mind to our partner. When you begin to feel defensive, ask a question instead of throwing out a retort. Become curious rather than seeking conflict. Ask for more information to what they are saying in a way that follows the previous areas of communication we have talked about in this post. If it is getting hard to listen without retaliating, it is time for a pause in the conversation. Listen to one another and empower your communication!
Just because we have communicated in a certain way since early on in our relationship, does not mean that is what we are stuck doing it that way forever. If you do not like the way tough conversations are handled, change it. Do not try to change your partner; instead, change the way you communicate and work as a couple to implement new communication strategies. Communication can allow us to win as a team, which means we move our relationship forward and deepen our connection. Isn’t this what we want from our relationship anyway? The choice is up to you and your partner, so get together and talk it out