8 Tips for Better Relationship Communication
How effective partnerships avoid common pitfalls
Communication is hard. We have this beautiful and sprawling language evolved through centuries of interaction—but it’s still entirely insufficient for expressing the complex web of thoughts, emotions, and experiences that make up human consciousness.
Every one of us is the result of uncountable tiny experiences that sculpt who we are; through years of listening, speaking, and feeling. Because of that, every string of words means something slightly different to each individual. Even when we choose all the right words to say what we mean...the recipient hears them somewhat differently.
If we’re not careful, that communication gap can widen catastrophically.
Silence & Storm: 2 types of dysfunctional communication
*Terms borrowed from Dr. Janice A. Spring’s After the Affair.
We are all imperfect communicators—and not only because language itself is imperfect.
We tend to talk about emotions in a linear fashion—I’m angry because I’m frustrated because you didn’t comfort me when I was sad—but emotions are more like a simmering stew on the stove, different ingredients rising and bubbling and subsiding along invisible convection currents.
Ever see what happens when you toss something into a simmering pot?
The storm response
For some people the obvious course of action during an argument is to boil over and vent explosively.
In sex therapy sessions, storm responders often explain their eruptive response in terms of getting things off their chest, or the danger of bottling things up. Or feeling the need to exert themselves loudly to make sure they’re heard.
Yelling and raging can be effective ways of getting attention—ask any toddler—but it can also deflect and divert focus from important fears and pain that need to be addressed. Unfortunately the nature of storms is to drive everyone inside behind closed doors—severing any hope of effective communication.
The silence response
At the opposite end of the bad-communication spectrum is the tendency to clam up. People who fall silent during difficult arguments often do so because they’re concerned about how their partner will react to what’s on their mind—or that revealing what’s bothering them will drive a deeper wedge.
Silence responders can seem calm and collected even when they’re seething below the surface with thoughts, feelings, and needs. The problem with such a response is that needs and concerns continue unaddressed...understanding and clarity remain elusive...and reconnecting with a partner is impossible without speaking.
Calming the storm communication technique
Through relationship therapy techniques, stormers can learn how to recognize their explosion coming on and call for a timeout. As agreed beforehand, their partner accepts the timeout—for a few minutes or a few hours, whatever’s needed—as long as everyone understands that the conversation will resume once calm is achieved.
Breaking the silence communication technique
Sex therapists help clients by providing structure for their communications and strategy for their timeline. Using a communication calendar like this one can help break the barrier of silence and provide direction for meaningful conversations with a romantic partner.
Schedule and structure can help form a foundation of positive communication habits.
Relationship communication styles are inherited—sometimes as opposites
Part of what a sex therapist helps to uncover is the relationship between behavior and experience...going back as far as childhood.
Human children start exploring their sexuality as early as 2 years old. From that point on, our sexuality grows with us—and so do our communication skills. Sexuality and communication are entwined at the core of our psyche—and bedroom problems usually stem from dysfunctional communication.
Children grow up watching parents communicate with each other, automatically learning and filing away precedents and models of behavior. Sometimes we mimic and sometimes we veer opposite.
For example, a person growing up with several noisy siblings might express themselves loudly and forcefully in order to be heard. Or someone growing up with parents screaming all the time might learn to clam up to avoid confrontation. Someone else might learn to respond with equal rage to avoid feeling steamrolled.
We are the sum of our experiences—informed entirely by our memories.
The trick is to reflect on where your communication modes came from—as well as how they’re being received. Self-discovery through context and empathy can open the doors to better communication and more satisfying interaction with significant others.
8 guidelines for effective communication
Sex therapists see all kinds of reasons why couples and romantic partnerships wind up at odds. Most of the time—whatever else is also happening—there’s a communication gap that leaves at least one person feeling unseen, unheard, and unimportant...which feels a lot like unloved.
Here are some things to keep in mind to improve relationship communication:
1. Give your partner 100% attention
Even if your mind is trying to run elsewhere, practice the physical signs of paying attention. Turn off the TV, turn your phone facedown or put it in another room on silent. Turn your body to face your partner and maintain eye contact to show you’re listening.