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.

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Intimate Partner Violence Series: Part I – 10 Signs of Intimate Partner Violence

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, and in honor of this, I’ve 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 One of this series. If this is a topic that has special relevance for you, stay tuned for future posts.

It can be tough to know what is just normal fighting or a few harsh words within a relationship and what defines intimate partner abuse. A main component of being in an abusive relationship is the denial that one experiences in relation to their partner’s behavior, making it challenging to identify potential abuse. Another common component to an abusive relationship is the alienation of the abused partner’s support system, meaning that those who may have wanted to speak out about the violence are now estranged friends and family members. If you’re concerned about behavior within your relationship I recommend you read through the following list of signs and see if any resonate with your experience:

 
 

1 | You feel on edge around your partner

If you feel you have to watch what you do or say in front of your partner to prevent a blow-up, that is a red-flag. We should be able to feel comfortable, safe and able to be honest and vulnerable in the presence of our partner without fear of setting them off.

2 | You constantly feel like you’re “in trouble”

In abusive relationships, the abuser constantly wants the abused to feel that they are in the wrong and that they’ve done something bad to “deserve” the abuse they’re receiving. I’m going to clear this up right now – no one EVER deserves abuse of any kind, whether it’s physical or verbal.

3 | Your partner spends a lot of time apologizing

Part of the cycle of violence involves the abuser apologizing profusely after an episode of abuse. For example, many abusers may drink or use heavily, engage in abusive behavior while intoxicated and the next morning (once they’ve sobered up) apologize and try to take back what they said.

4 | Your partner buys you expensive gifts

Especially in the beginning of an abusive relationship, the abuser will attempt to gain favor and control of their partner through the use of buying expensive gifts. Abusers also will buy their partner gifts or flowers as a way of asking for forgiveness following abuse.

5 | Your partner denies the truth

Often, abusers will completely deny saying or doing something abusive. This is why many survivors of abuse will claim that they felt they were “going crazy” in the relationship – in other words, abusive partners will manipulate the truth so often that you may begin to doubt your own memory or sanity.

6 | You have fuzzy or incomplete memories

Abuse is traumatizing and while experiencing traumatic events, the brain will often dissociate from the present moment or the physical experience of the trauma, making it more challenging in the future to recall abuse. If you have a difficult time remembering certain events, this could be an indicator of abuse.

7 | Your partner alienates you

This will often manifest as all your friends being your partner’s friends (so that you have no outside support) or could present as you having fewer and fewer relationships over time. An abusive partner will slowly erode away your other support and resources so that you don’t feel you have the option to leave.

8 | Your partner throws objects

Most people know that any form of non-consensual physical violence perpetrated against someone else is a form of abuse. But a lesser-known sign of abuse is a partner throwing objects around the house. Although one might say this is benign behavior, objects can inflict physical pain if thrown carelessly.

9 | Your partner talks down to you

If your partner belittles you, makes fun of you, calls you names, denigrates you, or in any way makes you feel badly about yourself as a regular practice, this is highly concerning. The way that abusive partners assert their control over their mate is through over time chipping away at their sense of self-worth.

10 | You make excuses for your partner

You may find yourself constantly explaining away your partner’s behavior such as “oh, he was just drunk,” or “he’s not usually like this,” or “she’s going through a really tough time right now,” in order to manage people’s perceptions of your partner. But in a healthy relationship, no excuses are necessary.

Although this list is far from exhaustive, it’s a good start to take the temperature of your relationship and see if there are any concerning attributes. If you'd like to learn more about warning signs of domestic violence, I suggest you visit this linkIf 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. I hope you found today’s post informative. Please leave a comment below if there’s anything you’d like to add or ask. Stay posted for future articles 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.

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