Good communication with your partner is one the most important signs of a healthy relationship. Being able to tell your partner what you feel and need is essential as a first step to being able to work through inevitable issues that arise in relationships. I have worked with hundreds of clients who struggle to communicate with their partners and spouses. There can be a lot of frustration and intense feeling around this issue. Many times, I have heard the response that the partner “should already know what I need” or an incredulous “how can they not know?!” Open and direct communication can feel scary. In fact, there are destructive patterns in relationships where communicating what one is feeling or needing can be met with outright hostility and aggression, if not violence. This blog on communication is intended to help address some basic barriers and strategies that arise in relationships. However, if you find that you fall into the category of being frightened that expressing your needs will be met with violence or hostility, I strongly recommend seeking professional advice. As obvious as it may sound, your partner cannot read your mind, even when the relationship has lasted for year. Here are some strategies that can help you communicate better.
Why should my feelings matter?
Before you tackle important issues with your partner, it can be useful to evaluate what feelings are getting stirred up for you. It can be worthwhile to do a self- check. Pause to ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now? This can be a good starting point. Some feelings can overwhelm us and we may want to push them away. Generally speaking, being able to identify what you are feeling can help you understand what is getting triggered in situations with your partner. When there is a history of trauma, you may need to work with a therapist on understanding difficult emotions. Feelings are neither “right or wrong”. We want to work on observing them without judging them. An everyday example might be feeling upset after a long day and finding that laundry is sitting unfolded and your partner is sitting next to the basket but on their computer playing games. You might have a mix of feeling like anger, frustration or resentment that your partner is not doing more to help out. The point of observing your feelings is to recognize that something important is going on internally that needs to be tended to.
What are spiraling thoughts?
The next step is to ask, “What am I thinking or believing in this situation?” This can be helpful because sometimes your thoughts or beliefs may not be completely related to what is actually going on in the present moment. In the laundry example, thoughts can spiral or escalate. Here is one example: “He is choosing the computer over doing the laundry. I told him that I need him to help out more with chores. He doesn’t care about me or what I need”. Our thoughts can sometimes make incredible leaps from concrete needs (the laundry needs to be folded and put away) to much more intimate needs (love and affirmation). The goal of this exercise is to try to help you to clarify what you are feeling, identify what you need and what is important to communicate. I usually recommend that if it is important to you, it is worth talking about with your partner, even if it seems minor.
What do I really want from my partner?
I usually ask my clients to clarify what they think is most important to ask of their partner. It may be something concrete like needing more help with specific household chores or help with managing childcare responsibilities. Other times, it may be something more directly tied to wanting to feel appreciated, loved and affirmed. I then ask what they have directly communicated. There is usually a disparity between what has been directly communicated versus what the client thinks should be understood without direct communication. This may sound obvious but your partner cannot read your mind so ere on the side of communicating concretely and directly. You are more likely to get your needs met if you let your partner know what is going on inside you. Approach communication with the idea that what you are communicating may or may not be what your partner is hearing or understanding.
Here are a few tips:
1. Schedule time to talk. Don’t try to have an important conversation in the middle of other activities. While it may feel very important in the moment, you may have a more successful conversation if you schedule time later in the day and give your partner the heads up that this is important to you.
2. Be direct and be specific. I will often hear “I am overwhelmed. I want my partner to help more” which is not as helpful to your partner as saying “I am tired and need your help with the dishes and sweeping every night before we go to bed.”
3. Try to be open to hearing your partner’s perspective. Relationships are often about negotiation and rarely work out well when one partner insists that they are always right and their partner is always wrong.
4. If emotions are flaring, take a time out to regroup and calm down.
5. Never have important conversations if you or your partner are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Communicating with your partner may not come out perfectly. That is ok. Think of this as a skill that gets easier the more you practice it. Do your best to try to identify the problem and what you need. You are much more likely to get your needs met if you talk about it.