Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Sport and Competition

3 Easy Ways to Keep Being a Happy Couple

A few tips on how to clean up your communication with your partner.

Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock
Source: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock

Couples can develop some bad communication habits with each other. These modes of speaking contribute to estrangement, isolation, and the feeling of living with an adversary.

Since your partner is the one person out of three billion you chose to spend the rest of your life with, it makes sense to learn some basic communication skills to preserve your connection. They don't require much effort, and my experience is that changing these negative habits into positive practices can significantly improve the atmosphere in your home. I call it marital hygiene.

1. Say what you want, not what you don't want.

Many of us have a hard time saying what we want directly, as if we're not entitled to ask for what we want. But we do want things, and sometimes we cope with our discomfort by asking for them in the form of a criticism. Here are some examples (with a suggested improvement in parentheses):

"I want you to stop micromanaging me" ("I want you to trust me to make decisions"); "I wish you would quit showing up late all the time" ("I like it when you come at the time we agreed upon"); "I don't like it when you don't tell me where you're going" ("I relax when I know where you'll be").

Your message will come across every bit as clearly, and your partner will want to comply more, when it's phrased in the positive.

2. Replace "but" with "and."

This deceptively simple practice will go a long way toward avoiding the tit-for-tat arguments that often pass for communication within couples. Listen to the difference between "I understand what you're saying, but I feel..." versus "I understand what you're saying, and I feel..." It's subtle, but that shift contributes to a greater feeling of win-win cooperation, rather than win-lose, one-of-us-has-to-be-right-and-the-other-wrong competition.

3. Don't pollute a compliment with a negative qualifier.

Sometimes we ruin a perfectly nice compliment with a totally unnecessary negative qualifier. Listen to these comments, and see if you can detect the offending word. Better yet, imagine yourself on the receiving end of these "compliments," and you'll immediately detect the problem. Our brains are wired to pick up on danger, so we'll almost always hear—and remember—the negative, while the positive message gets lost as our brain screams "Warning: Danger!":

  • "I'm glad you finally got me something I like for my birthday."
  • "It's nice you actually cleaned up the kitchen when you were done cooking."
  • "It really felt good when you touched me for once."

Just in case you missed the offending words, they're "finally," "actually" and "for once." John Gottman, who has researched couples for 40 years, writes that for every negative message we give our partner, it takes five positive ones to erase the bad feeling. An ounce of preventative, clean communication is worth much more than a pound of critical comments.

More from Josh Gressel Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today