People often assume that problems in love relationships occur because of difficulties in verbal communication. The way we communicate certainly plays a role, but before I delve into a few specific tips on improving communication, I want to address a deeper issue – that of connection. When people feel connected, they seem to experience their communication as much less problematic compared to when they feel disconnected, regardless of their choice of words and communication techniques. Emotional connection is a mental state that begins with a resolve to show appreciation, understanding and compassion. We tend to be good about this at the start of a relationship, but not as diligent over the long-term.
If you were to be honest, how often would you say you take the things your partner does for granted? Speak without choosing your words carefully? Believe your partner’s point of view can’t possibly be as valid as yours?
One way to think about communication, in terms of the way it both reflects and impacts our sense of connection to our significant other, is by breaking it down into “bids”— a concept coined by the relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman.
In his research, Dr. Gottman found that the way we handle our daily exchanges, as insignificant as they may seem, over time plays a very important role in the quality and strength of our relationships. A bid can be a question, a gesture, a look, a touch – any verbal or non-verbal expression that communicates outreach. A response to a bid can be positive or negative. In a positive response, one might “turn towards” a bid. For example, laughing at a funny comment a partner makes, mirroring a look or entertaining an idea that he or she proposes. Those who react positively to each other’s bids have greater access to humor, affection and conflict resolution. Negative responses to bids involve either “turning away” by ignoring/acting preoccupied or “turning against” by becoming argumentative, using sarcasm or ridiculing. Couples who struggle show much higher rates of negative responses to bids than couples who get along and stay together.
So, how can couples navigate daily exchanges in ways that help them remain connected? Here are 10 tips for effective communication:
- Avoid a “harsh startup” – in other words, begin your interaction on a softer, positive note. Example: “You are never here, seems like you have better things to do than spend time with me” vs. “It’s been a while since we’ve had quality time together; let’s make plans.”
- Express appreciation and gratitude – this includes mundane tasks expected as part of your chosen roles. Example: “Appreciate your cooking dinner/putting gas in my car/picking up the kids, etc.”
- Start with “I” instead of “you” – making I-statements reduces the likeliness of your partner feeling confronted and decreases the likelihood that he or she will respond defensively, preventing escalation. Example: “You could have called!” vs. “I was worried/wondering what happened when I didn’t hear from you earlier today.”
- Address one issue at a time – instead of listing multiple complaints, pick one specific problem behavior to discuss. Example: “You didn’t do the dishes, where is that package I gave you, and did you even remember to make that phone call?” vs. “Could you load the dishwasher in the next hour? I was hoping to have an empty sink before I cook dinner tonight…” By the way, offering a range of time for someone to complete a task helps provide a sense of choice and decreases resistance.
- When things don’t go well, revisit the episode later on – it’s always a good idea to take a break when the conversation is not productive, cool off and return to it once tempers are no longer flaring. Example: “I didn’t like how our conversation went yesterday; I didn’t mean to start yelling and criticizing you, what I wanted to get at was ____.”
- Complain but do not criticize – complain when you must, but criticism spells damage for your relationship over the long term. In addition, focus complaints on specific problem behaviors, not on character flaws. Example: “All you ever think about is going out, not about me or the kids, you’re really selfish” vs. “You’ve been going out for the past few Saturdays. It’s been tough not having you around on the weekend. Can you skip it next Saturday? The kids and I would really like to spend time with you and I could use some help.”
- Avoid mind reading – find a way to express your needs clearly, so that they can be met. Do not expect your partner to guess why you are upset because he or she “should just know it;” if your partner isn’t meeting one of your needs, it’s your responsibility to teach your partner. This requires you to be vulnerable, so when your partner does the same treat it with respect and don’t use it against him or her in a confrontation.
- Try disclosure – instead of going straight for action, try talking about what feeling you are about to do. Example: yelling vs. saying: “I feel so angry I want to yell at you” or “I feel so upset I want to leave right now.” It allows you to express how you feel and continue the conversation.
- Allow your partner to retreat with dignity – Accept your partner’s efforts to deescalate the conflict. Sometimes discussion that involves conflict can trigger feelings of being emotionally and physically overwhelmed; you no longer think clearly, you’d rather be anywhere else, you get defensive instead of trying to problem solve and you can no longer accept new information or influence – this is called flooding. It can happen to both genders, but according to research, it seems to be more common among men. What can you do? Take a break from the conversation.
- Recognize when a bid is being extended to you – in an argument, this is an olive branch and can take many forms, such as humor, partial acknowledgement of your point, a change of subject to something less relevant, but still emotionally charged. Don’t insist on “I’m sorry” as the only way.
Finally, it’s important to remember that the easiest and most dependable way to improve your communication and connection is to take control and make changes within yourself. You can’t control or make changes for your partner and you can’t tell your partner what to do, but you can inspire your partner by giving them a whole new set of behaviors and stimuli to respond to. If you begin to treat your partner differently, your partner is more likely to respond differently, and before you know it, old habits begin to change.