4 Communication Skills Every Couple Needs
Critical skills for maintaining and improving emotional trust.
Posted February 20, 2019
A core aspect of a good relationship is maintaining emotional trust and repairing that trust when blips happen. All of these four communication skills will assist you in doing that. Of the four, what are you strongest at? What's your weak spot?
1. Have exit strategies for heated arguments.
According to research by Dr John Gottman, around 70 percent of the arguments that couples have are recurring. They're about conflicts that are never solved. Whether this causes a problem in the relationship depends on the emotional tone of these conversations. Are they vicious? Full of contempt and harsh criticism, or not? There comes a point in many arguments when you know they're not going anywhere productive. How do you diffuse conversations that are about to become hurtful and destructive? What works is going to depend on the relationship. For instance, humor sometimes works, but not if your partner sees you as not ever taking anything seriously. Another strategy that can work is intellectualizing your pattern, such as acknowledging that whenever a particular topic comes up, it's very upsetting for both of you or brings up bad memories. Sometimes it's just a matter of changing the subject.
2. Acknowledge valid points your partner makes about your flaws.
This is a simple but important skill that I talk about in detail in my book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit. When your partner makes a valid point during conversations, it's important to acknowledge the legitimacy of their argument, including when their point is about a flaw or weakness you have. What valid complaints does your partner make about your behavior? For example, does your partner complain that you're always working? That you eat too much salt? That you never stand up to your parents when they're being intrusive? That you're disorganized in how you approach a particular task?
Changing behavior is hard, but acknowledging the presence of an issue is sometimes enough to stop it from causing major relationship problems. If you never change or improve anything about yourself, your partner is likely to become pretty annoyed. However, most people can empathize with having habits you know you should address, but struggling to do so.
3. Have ways of showing you think about your partner when you're not physically together.
Couples who stay in love over the long term tend to think about each other when they're not physically together. It's useful to occasionally communicate to your partner that you're thinking about them when you're apart. For instance, if your partner was taking a flight alone, you might say, "I checked your flight after I dropped you off at the airport and saw you were 30 mins late departing." If your partner is out running errands and probably stuck in traffic or waiting in a long line, you might give them a "hello" call. You'll soon find out what types of communication your partner finds thoughtful and supportive and what they find annoying or disruptive.
It's normal and healthy for partners to want to know roughly where the other person is and when they'll be coming back. The genesis of this desire is that the adult attachment system which emotionally glues couples together is, in an evolutionary sense, borrowed from the parent-child attachment system. So, couples like to know where each other is, just like a small child likes to know where their parent is and when they're coming back.
4. Communicate when you're prepared to discuss a topic if now isn't the right time.
It's important in relationships for partners not to feel like topics are completely off limits. For instance, when one person wants to discuss having another baby, renovating the bathroom, or moving to a different city or state. However, partners sometimes bring up tricky topics when the other person isn't in the headspace to discuss it. When this happens, it's important the person who isn't ready for the conversation lets their partner know when a better time to talk would be. I'm a huge proponent of couples going for an evening walk together. This routine makes for a great time to catch up with each other and talk about plans, big and small. And it's often easier to have potentially difficult conversations when you're physically moving and not trapped in your house, or a chair at a restaurant, etc.
Of the four skills I've mentioned, which do you think has the biggest potential to help your relationship? An elephant in the room that's worth explicitly mentioning is that many times the emotional work in relationships is done by a woman. Therefore, guys, this is your opportunity to step up, and I've given you some specific skills to choose from and try out. If these skills are unfamiliar, expect trying them to feel clunky at first. It's a bit like trying to speak in a new language; you're always going to sound awkward to start with, and it won't feel natural initially, but it becomes more organic feeling over time and with practice.