You find that special someone that you want to be with, and you want to be sure it withstands the test of time.
Research shows 50% of marriages in the US end in divorce. Research also shows that couples tend to wait 6 years before getting help with a negative pattern. Congratulations for getting started early and learning some valuable tools now! Read on for 5 strategies to help you keep strong communication skills in your relationship over time.
1) Know Your Communication Style. Throughout your relationship, there will always be topics to discuss and work through together. A lot of couples get stuck in this process, the communication goes off track, and they aren’t able to find a resolution. Over time, things can fester and turn into resentments. This is why it is important to be aware of what happens to you under stress. When you disagree with your partner, feel offended, confused, concerned, unheard… do you Fight, Flight, or Freeze? Fighting looks like raising your voice, pushing your point, interrupting your partner and trying to dominate the situation. Flighting looks like disengage, withdraw, disconnect, silent treatment. Freezing looks like going more of the passive route and feeling indifferent about it all. ALL of these responses to stress are normal, they are our brains way to protect us—but they don’t work so well in relationships. The good news is that with some self-awareness and honest discussions, we can learn how to manage those moments better.
First, have an open, calm discussion with your partner about what each of you does under stress when trying to communicate that doesn’t work so well. Then, think about what you can do differently. For example if you are a Fighter, work to see your partner’s point of view more often, while still representing your own. If you are a Flighter, work to put your own point of view out there more often, while still seeking out what your partner wants. If you are a Freezer, work to get in touch with what is truly important to you, see if you can articulate it to your partner as well as what leads you to “freeze up” sometimes.
2) Make plans for future conflict: Healthy marriages have moments of disconnection, and then reconnection. In other words, there are conflicts, and then reconnecting later, discussing the conflict from each person’s perspective in an open, nonblaming way. But, there is another important aspect that many couples skip over! That is, making a plan for the future to help prevent the same blunder from happening over and over again. To do this, it is important to look at HOW you are each talking about the problem. If one of you speaks loudly when stressed and it overwhelms your partner, have an open conversation about that. A strong couples’ team responds and is sensitive to each other’s vulnerabilities. For example, “ok next time, give me a signal when you feel like my voice is getting too loud.” Or, “is it ok if I signal you next time when your voice is getting too loud? How can I say it in a way that doesn’t make you angry?” When couples say “we keep repeating the same issue over and over again”, often the reason can be failure to collaborate on planning for the future conflict.
3) Co-Create Your Relationship. You and your partner are a very important team, creating something great together! What kind of relationship do you want to have? What do you want it to feel like between the two of you? For example, do you want it to feel open, like you can each be honest with each other? When planning how to create/maintain the relationship that you want to have, it’s helpful to separate yourselves out and use the word “I” instead of “we.” What is YOUR part in creating that feeling over time? For example, if you ask your partner a question, but you don’t like the answer, how do YOU respond? If you tend to react in a judgmental or strong way, you could be communicating to your partner that it’s not safe for them to share their truth with you when you don’t agree with it – and that can affect how open you feel with each other over time. It’s helpful to have a discussion with each other about what you want your relationship to look and feel like, and what you believe each of your parts is in creating and maintaining that vision.
4) Hear Both Truths. Here is a concept that is simple, not always easy, yet extremely valuable. It is one of the main areas that couples can get tripped up over time when trying to communicate effectively. Here it is….. You can understand where your partner is coming from WITHOUT agreeing with them. That’s right, you don’t have to agree with your partner’s recollection of what happened, you don’t have to agree with their feelings, their outlook, their perspective, their ideas…. In fact, you will disagree often, as you are 2 different people. Disagreeing is not the problem – the problem is what you DO with the disagreement. You want to work toward being curious about where your partner is coming from, without making them wrong or getting defensive or blaming them, and yet still representing your point of view. This strategy is a biggie in communication and goes a long way in maintaining closeness, open communication, and feeling heard/understood.
5) Love Language. What can/do you do to make your partner feel most loved, valued or appreciated? How confident are you that you truly know the answer to that question? Sometimes couples feel underappreciated because they begin to take each other for granted. Or sometimes they do give to each other, but miss the mark in terms of what is meaningful to their partner. For example, I know a couple where one partner says “I appreciate that my partner cooks dinner for me every night – it’s really nice – but it doesn’t make me feel loved or valued. What makes me feel loved is when my partner tells me what qualities in me that they love, or when they buy me gifts.” This scenario is very, very common, so consider asking your partner this question. Furthermore, we tend to give what we want to get! But what you are giving may be nice, but missing the mark. Here is a great website to learn more about this topic: 5lovelanguages.com
Implementing these strategies can go a long way in maintaining healthy communication over time!
And, if you have some stuck places, seeking the help of a professional therapist is always a good idea.
Michelle Wangler Joy, MFT, has been employed at The Couples Institute in Menlo Park, CA, since 2002, and is currently a therapist on staff. She trains with relationship experts Ellyn Bader, Ph.D and Peter Pearson, Ph.D to deliver state of the art tools for couples. Michelle provides both couples and individual counseling, teaches communication workshops, and conducts training seminars both locally and nationally for therapists on how to help more couples.