10 Tips for Communicating with a Spouse

One of the most common goals for treatment that I hear from couples counseling clients is that they would like to communicate better. By the time couples come in for therapy, they typically know that their communication patterns are not serving them anymore and that they need to learn new skills. That’s why I’ve compiled this list of strategies for improving your communication with your partner:

 
 

1 | Use “I” statements

When communicating with your partner, it’s essential that you speak from your own experience and avoid blaming your partner for your feelings. This has two benefits, 1) you allow yourself to be seen and heard and 2) you avoid putting your partner on the defensive. Utilizing “I” statements is probably the most commonly taught technique in couples counseling.

2 | Avoid over-generalizations

Making statements such as “you always” or “you never” is not only unhelpful, but it’s also simply untrue. It’s impossible for someone to always or never do something, so let’s keep the over-generalizations out of the conversations. For a more helpful and healing interaction, express the way it makes you feel when your partner behaves in a certain way.

3 | Listen fully

This means that you need to pay close attention to what your partner is saying, as opposed to planning your response. I find that when I feel revved up and really want to say something, I notice my body begin to tense up and wanting to interject. In these moments, slowing down and focusing on my breath allows me to stay present to what my partner is saying.

4 | Face your issues

When people don’t address and resolve the things that bother them with their partner, they may think they are just “letting it go,” but typically these annoyances and resentments build up over time resulting in one of two scenarios, 1) the frustration can be insidiously expressed as passive aggressive behavior or 2) the anger can build up over time causing the individual to lash out at their partner. Do these sound familiar? As uncomfortable as it may be to do at the time, you and your partner are both better off dealing with issues head on instead of putting them on the back burner.

5 | Practice honesty

This may seem obvious, but I don’t think it can be understated that trust is the foundation of an intimate relationship and deception (even when it seems innocuous) slowly erodes at that foundation. Even if you’re tempted to cover up the truth about something to avoid discomfort or conflict, remind yourself that your relationship will benefit more from telling the truth and dealing with the consequences. It will ultimately bring you closer.

6 | Be vulnerable

In any relationship conflict, it takes two to tango. Even if one person is 99% at fault for something, the other partner is 1% accountable. So, if you’re angry or upset with your partner about an issue, take responsibility for your part in it. This will set the tone for the conversation and encourage your partner to open up with you about their part in the conflict. If being vulnerable is challenging for you, I recommend watching the above TED talk about the power of vulnerability. It's one of my favorites.

7 | Know “The Four Horsemen”

John Gottman, the psychologist famous for his research on relationships, writes about the “Four Horsemen” of relationships which are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. In order to have successful communication and a long-lasting relationship, couples must avoid these classic traits that can doom relationships. Here is a short summary of Gottman’s Four Horsemen:

  • Criticism – Offering your partner helpful feedback on ways they can improve within the relationship can be a healthy habit, but once your criticism crosses the line into a pervasive pattern of diminishing your partner’s sense of self, this becomes unhealthy.
  • Contempt – This characteristic is often expressed as name-calling, mimicking, ridicule and using body language such as eye-rolling that denigrates the other person. These behaviors have a serious negative effect on relationships and need to be avoided.
  • Defensiveness – It’s challenging not to get defensive when your partner addresses an issue with you, but it’s critical to take feedback in stride. Defensiveness turns what could otherwise be a productive discussion and turns it into an argument immediately.
  • Stonewalling – The term refers to when a partner becomes overwhelmed with the conflict with their partner and decides to completely withdraw from the interaction. This behavior can be incredibly frustrating and invalidating for the other partner.

8 | Speak directly

You may wish that your partner knew what you wanted and needed at every moment, but the truth is, they don’t! Therefore, you need to assert your needs often and clearly, to help your partner out. This process may be rocky at first (it can take a while for people to get used to assertiveness!) but if you can master direct communication with your partner, the rest of your relationship will flow much more smoothly.

9 | Stay calm

When people get triggered in a conflict with their partner, they can often raise their voice and say things that they don’t mean. To combat this, stay connected with your internal experience during a discussion with your partner. If you notice physiological symptoms of stress (like sweating, increased heart rate, etc.) slow the conversation down, take a few deep breaths, and if you need to, tell your partner you need to take a break in the other room for a minute before returning to the conversation. This mindfulness will help prevent unnecessary outbursts.

10 | Table discussions

This may seem contradictory to tip number 4 (Face Your Issues), but it actually complements it. Sometimes it is simply not a good time to discuss a particular topic. If you’re on your way to an important work presentation and need to be on your A-game, you probably don’t want to bring up that huge issue with your spouse on the car ride to work. Instead, mention to your partner that you’d like to discuss it when you get home. This way, you’re not avoiding the issue, but finding the right place and time to address it.

I hope this list is helpful to you and your partner in optimizing your relationship. I know these strategies have helped me immensely in my own relationship. Now I’d like to hear from you! What works for you in communication with your spouse? What seems to always backfire? Do you have any questions about how to employ these tips? Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments section below. Thank you and be well.


about the author

Hi! I'm Natalie. And I'm passionate about helping people create healthy relationships in their lives. Through couples counseling in Pasadena and here on the blog, it's my mission to help foster stronger connections, healthy communication and life-long love.

Follow

Intimate Partner Violence Series: Part IV – "Tell me, is my Relationship Healthy?"

Last month (in honor of Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month) I decided to develop an Intimate Partner Violence Series that is intended to equip individuals with the information necessary to 1) determine if they are in an abusive relationship, 2) develop a safety plan for while they are in the relationship, 3) seek support and resources to help them get out of the relationship and finally 4) identify signs of healthy relationships. This series is intended to be educational in nature and is not a substitute for seeking professional help. Please seek the help of a therapist in your area. Today’s post is Part Four and the final installment of this series. If this is a topic that has special relevance for you, please follow the above links for previous articles.

If we didn't receive good (or any!) modeling from our parents about how to be in a healthy, loving intimate relationship, it can be hard to know if we're "doing it right." When I got into my first serious relationship in college, I honestly didn't know what a healthy relationship looked like, and unfortunately wound up in an abusive relationship for almost 5 years with someone who at the time I thought was a "perfect boyfriend" and who I assumed I'd spend my life with. It wasn't until having friends and family intervene that I became awake to the fact that I was in a very unhealthy relationship and needed to leave.

Not once did I receive education in signs of intimate partner abuse or the cycle of violence as an undergraduate in psychology nor as a graduate student in counseling. Had I been aware, I might've been able to notice the warning signs and leave sooner. I hope you, the reader, keep yourself informed of traits of healthy and unhealthy relationships so you can avoid the pain of abuse and have a satisfying, lifelong relationship with someone you love. Please read on for my round-up of characteristics of healthy relationships:

 
 

1 | Communication

One thing that I often tell psychotherapy clients is that your partner is not a mind-reader! Just because you wish your partner new what you needed and could meet your needs all the time doesn’t mean that they can. In a relationship, we need to take responsibility for our obligation to keep our partner informed of what we’re thinking, feeling, needing and expecting so that we don’t find ourselves constantly resentful and disappointed. If you and your partner are in sync with your communication, this is a strong indicator that your relationship is headed in the right direction.

2 | Vulnerability

This is a tough one for people because making ourselves vulnerable can be an intensely uncomfortable and difficult task, and can be even harder for those who’ve experienced much betrayal, deception or trauma in past relationships. However, as risky as it can feel, making ourselves vulnerable to our partner allows us to be fully seen and loved by our partner and help us resolve conflicts with love instead of anger. If you and your partner allow yourselves to be vulnerable with one another, then you will likely find it easier to connect on a deeper level and move through challenges with ease.

3 | Honesty

Transparency in a relationship allows it to grow and thrive. Knowing that your partner is in the loop about your actions will allow you to be more present in your interactions with them and prevent guilt and shame from creeping in. If you and your partner find it easy to admit transgressions to one another and share information – even if it might hurt the other – then you’re likely in a relationship with a high level of honesty and integrity.

4 | Trust

What I often tell my psychotherapy clients is that trust is the foundation of a relationship – without it, there’s not much of a relationship at all – it’s more like two people living parallel lives, loosely connected to one another. In a relationship where the trust is well-established and strong, the couple’s bond can withstand ambiguity and fear, because their trust in one another serves as the bedrock of the relationship – unshakeable, despite challenging external factors.

5 | Boundaries

As much as we want to experience closeness with our partner, in order to have a thriving relationship, we need to balance that out with maintaining healthy personal boundaries. Relationship boundaries are limits that we set within the relationship – for example, people can have boundaries around their time, their personal space, their finances, how they expect to be treated by their partner among many other areas. It’s important to establish clear boundaries and uphold them, in order to prevent feeling taken advantage of by our partner.

6 | Fun

One of the many benefits of being in a relationship is the ability to share the enjoyment of life with your partner. We’re wired for connection, so it makes sense that we would be naturally inclined to seek a life partner with whom to share fun times with. If you and your mate are cracking each other up, having a blast on dates, and fully engaging in the moment, chances are your relationship is healthy and thriving.

7 | Intimacy

A hallmark of healthy relationships is the intimacy shared between the partners. Physical intimacy is a pivotal aspect of a healthy relationship for many couples, but is not always necessary. For partners in long-distance relationships, or partners who choose to abstain sexually, emotional intimacy can be enough to satisfy both partners. Intimacy, in this sense, indicates sharing deeply with that person and letting them in on parts of you that you don’t share with just anyone.

8 | Loyalty

Of course many couples choose to have polyamorous relationships, but in a monogamous relationship there is an expectation of physical and emotional loyalty to one another. In a healthy relationship (whether monogamous or polyamorous,) both partners honor the agreements and expectations set forth at the beginning of the relationship about what is acceptable (and unacceptable) behavior. Also, remember that emotional affairs can cause as much (if not more) damage than physical affairs.

9 | Equity

Equity and equality are two different, yet similar, ideas. Saying that a relationship should have equality would be unrealistic, because each partner has different strengths, abilities and resources to contribute to the relationship that will never be equal – that would simply be impossible to achieve! But to say that a relationship is equitable means that both partners are contributing what they can and treating one another with dignity and respect.

10 | Reliability

In order to feel secure in your relationship, you need to know that you can count on your partner – whether it be expecting them to show up for a date when they say they will, or being able to drop everything and come help you in a crisis situation. Without dependability, we’ll feel like we’re on our own within the relationship. Knowing that our partner is available to us makes us feel closer to them and safer in general because we know we have support when we need it.

I hope you found today’s post informative. Although there are many other qualities of healthy relationships that I could identify, theses are the ten that really stood out to me when I sat down to write this post. Please leave a comment below if there’s anything you’d like to add or ask.

If you feel that you are in imminent danger, please seek help immediately, by calling The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or by calling 911. If you are not in immediate danger, but would like to find someone to talk to, you can find a therapist at PsychologyToday.com or if you are in the Los Angeles area, feel free to contact me for therapy. This is the final article in this series. Be safe and be well.


about the author

Hi! I'm Natalie. And I'm passionate about helping people create healthy relationships in their lives. Through couples counseling in Pasadena and here on the blog, it's my mission to help foster stronger connections, healthy communication and life-long love.

Follow