How I Used 7 Communication Tips to Improve My Relationship
Knowing how to communicate in a relationship is crucial. These are the strategies I used to introduce healthy and honest communication into my marriage.
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How to fix communication in relationships
Even for the most self-aware person, communication can sometimes be challenging.
That’s why it’s no surprise that communication challenges are one of the most common reasons for divorce. Although a foundational piece of all relationships, healthy communication is hard to maintain for many couples. Especially when we are tired, stressed, and generally overwhelmed. (These are the characteristics of a healthy relationship.)
After a long and particularly grueling day jam-packed with Zoom meetings and teaching, my husband and I had a huge argument. I was tired, and so was he.
I was stressed out about a multitude of things, and so was he. My patience was short, and so was his.
Admittedly, I said things to him on that Tuesday evening that were hurtful and unnecessary. The next morning, I woke up with a heavy heart. Throughout the day, a nagging feeling weighed on me and tugged at my conscience.
To make matters worse, after the argument, we still had not resolved the issue. After all the yelling and exchanging tiny verbal jabs, we still were not any closer to expressing or understanding each other’s true feelings. [Here are some relationship communication quotes that will make you speak up and listen to your partner.]
Before I went to bed that night, I walked to my bookcase. I pulled out Saying What’s Real: 7 Keys to Authentic Communication and Relationship Success by psychologist and relationship expert and coach, Susan Campbell. Two words grabbed my attention: real and authentic.
Although my husband is my best friend, there are times like that Tuesday night when our communication becomes lost. Our true feelings and thoughts vanish into a cloud of accusations, which are fueled with a desire to be heard.
I wanted to start working on having more consistent real and authentic communication with my husband. So, I gave the book a chance, and I am happy that I did.
What I leaned about communication in relationships
It improved and changed how we communicate and the way that I think about communication and conflict.
Although I am still far from perfect in the communication arena, these strategies have worked wonders in creating healthy and honest communication for us. (Also, these are the arguments that end relationships.)
Lead with feelings
Campbell divides feelings into two parts—emotions and sensations. An example of leading with emotions while communicating with your partner would be, “hearing you say that makes me feel hurt,” and an example of leading with sensations includes, “I feel tension.” Implementing this tip has been challenging yet critical for me.
For example, when I felt like my husband was not helping around the house, it was sometimes difficult to resist the urge to blame him for how I felt in the moment.
Typically, I would say something like, “I am so tired of asking you to help, and you never do.” Not only are comments like that untrue, because he does help, they are also accusatory, hurtful, and do not authentically express how I am feeling in the moment.
Instead, I began to say things like, “Right now, I feel overwhelmed and disappointed that I don’t feel your full support.” By taking this approach, I began to take responsibility for my emotions fully, and I quickly noticed my husband began to lower his defenses.
(Experts break down the true science behind happy relationships.)
Lead with your wants
Based on some of our past experiences, we might not feel safe expressing our wants.
As a child, I was able to communicate my desires freely. However, as I grew into an adult, I found myself sometimes in relationships that I did not feel safe expressing my wants, which I believe to be partially self-imposed.
Consequently, sometimes I express my desires passive-aggressively or not at all.
When leading with my wants, I found it beneficial to be as specific as possible with my husband. Campbell warns against general statements because they can be misconstrued, and they are open to interpretation. When I wanted my husband to do something with me, instead of hinting around my request or expecting him to become an empath and suddenly read my mind, I explicitly expressed my want.
Campbell emphasizes the importance of timeliness. Leading with my wants has worked best for me when I express my desires when my husband can accommodate my request. I have also found it tremendously helpful to ask without expectation.
The first time I used this tip, I was shocked by my husband’s response. We were getting dressed to go out, and instead of saying my typical, “You never help me with the baby,” I said, “I want you to help me with the baby while I get dressed.” And guess what? He did it. Just like that!
It can be hard to address conflict, but conflict is bound to arise, and according to Campbell, conflict is a healthy part of a relationship.
This particular section of her book grappled with conflict avoidance and resonated with me. Although I can be outspoken about some things, I tend to avoid conflict on topics that are especially sensitive and anxiety-producing.
That’s especially true in cases where I can successfully talk myself out of addressing my feelings or convince myself that the issue is not a big deal and that I am overreacting. (Here’s how to deal with anxiety in relationships.)
At first, I intentionally used the exact language suggested by Campbell.
For example, when my husband and I had to make a challenging and stressful decision that we did not initially agree about, opposed to swallowing my feelings, I said, “There is something that I have been withholding from you, and I have some feelings that I need to clear so that we can get back to feeling good with each other.”
At first, my husband was noticeably surprised by how I introduced the conversation, but he was also disarmed and not defensive. We were able to discuss the issue and come to a resolution.
Control and express triggers
I cannot express how valuable this tip has been for me. Before using it, I would allow my anger and hurt to control the conversation, my reactions, and approaches to conflict.
Integrating this approach has been incredibly helpful in slowing down the conversation’s pace and giving my husband space to process his thoughts.
During conflict, I also noticed that, at times, I would place unfair blame on my husband to defend myself. Practicing this strategy helped address that reaction and encouraged me to take full responsibility for my response to the conversation.
For example, when my husband would make comments that were upsetting, I would politely interject and say, “I’m starting to become triggered.”
According to Campbell, blaming is a control pattern. It’s a way to feel more in control by explaining why something occurred. When we feel helpless, finding something or someone to blame helps us feel more in control.
This often results in blame and inevitably miscommunication. In her book, Campbell also recommends slowing down the conversation by asking for a few minutes to calm down and process what has just been discussed. (Here are the telltale signs you’re in a toxic relationship.)
Lead with your appreciation
Leading with appreciation is also a valuable tool in how I now communicate with my husband. Campbell says that sharing gratitude is an “investment in the health” of any relationship. I found that expressing my appreciation toward my husband helped me focus more on the qualities and attributes that made me fall in love with him.
“Appreciating others gets you in the habit of noticing more things to appreciate, thus leading to an overall attitude of gratitude for your life,” says Campbell.
I will admit, it has been easy to lead with appreciation when both my husband and I are in a happy and positive space. But, it has been a little more challenging to do so during difficult conversations.
I remember shortly after reading the book my husband expressed concerns over my online shopping. I immediately wanted to either shut down or lash out. But I did neither.
I said to him, “I appreciate you sharing your concerns and expressing what you want.” My husband instantly looked at me like I had grown a third head, and surprisingly, I felt the tension of defensiveness released from my clenched jaw. I was better able to receive his feedback without feeling defensive or attacked.
According to Campbell, it’s essential that we “value and appreciate the feedback of others, even if it is not pleasing to hear.” The key to this tip is to try to strike a healthy balance between engaging in honest communication and feedback that includes both expressions of appreciation and growth opportunities.
(Worried your partner might be passive-aggressive? Here are the signs of passive-aggressive behavior.)
Lead with affirmation of feedback, followed by a specific counter request or feeling/thought
The most important part of this approach is the use of “and” opposed to “but.” For example, I have started to say things to my husband like, “I hear you, and I have a different perspective.” In place of, “I hear you, but I have a different perspective.”
At first, it felt awkward. I realized that it felt hardwired to use “but” instead of “and.” But it’s not.
Think about it—most times, when someone gives us feedback and follows it with “but,” the feeling can be similar to nails on a chalkboard, and our defenses instantly go on red alert.
Once I began using “and” instead, I realized two things. First, how often I use the word “but.” Second, my husband’s immediate reaction and the slow shift in being more receptive to my feedback.
(Here’s what you need to know about positive affirmations.)
Lead with asking for permission
Sales has never been my calling. I came to this revelation after working in retail as a teenager. But I was able to walk away from that humbling experience with more than a few dollars earned. I learned to always ask the customer for permission, which is what Campbell also suggests for authentic communication.
One night I was distraught with my husband, and just as I was going to storm into the bedroom with steam billowing from my ears, I stopped myself. I decided to pair this suggestion with Campbell’s approach to clearing the air. This is what happened: I walked into the bedroom and sat next to my husband, and said, “Can we talk about what’s happening? I want to clear the space about how I am feeling and the exchange that we just had.”
And guess what? He did not bite. He told me that he was not in the mood to discuss the issue further that night and wanted to get some rest.
As much as I wanted to push, I let go and honored his request for space. I also used another one of Campbell’s suggestions by thanking him for expressing his need for space and his openness to discuss the issue at a later time. This is another instance in which releasing the urge to control is of central importance.
We cannot control when others want to address an issue, and we cannot require that a person be prepared to talk about something at the very moment that we are.
Campbell does not recommend habitually tabling essential conversations to the detriment of a relationship. Instead, give your partner the freedom and space to decide if they want to engage in a conversation before imposing it on them. I have found that when I secure my husband’s buy-in before addressing a sensitive topic, he is more open and responsive to my thoughts and feelings.
Next, here’s a quick habit to improve your relationship.
- Susan Campbell, PhD, psychologist, relationship expert and coach, and author of Saying What's Real: 7 Keys to Authentic Communication and Relationship Success