Two Great Ways to Have Better Communication with Your Partner
“Can’t live with them and can’t live without them.” That’s the human plight when it comes to relationships. Most of us pair off, sooner or later, with about 60 percent of Americans married by age 35 and another 24 percent or so living with a partner. 1Four out of five adults over age 25 have been married at some point, even if that marriage dissolved.2 And 11 percent of us are looking for a relationship at any given time.3
We find mates because we’re hoping for contentment, bliss, security—but of course, divorce and break-up statistics prove that such happy results don’t always follow. And staying in a relationship doesn’t mean all is peace, either, with some couples fighting daily until death does them part.
The price we pay for unhappy togetherness is extraordinary—most likely, far higher than you have ever imagined. Studies show us that relationship stress can increase the risk of dying from heart disease or of having a heart attack by almost 300 percent.4 And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Other studies have found that relationship discord leads to increased risk of hypertension, high blood sugar, high triglycerides, obesity, weakened immunity, depression, and overall poor mental health, to say nothing of generalized, debilitating misery.
Clearly, then, it’s vital to know how to communicate with your partner so that you’re not always in a state of conflict, or so that you can minimize the damage when disagreements do arise. Here are two highly effective methods that might ease the stress:
1. Schedule Regular, even daily, check-ins. Communication misfires when we make assumptions about what the other person thinks and feels. Joe comes home from work and slams the newspaper on the table. “He’s angry with me,” Anne thinks. Anne spends the entire dinner party talking to neighbor Paul. “She’s attracted to him,” Joe thinks. When people harbor these sorts of assumptions, they act accordingly, snapping at their partners and receiving anger in return, until they find themselves embroiled in a war. The problem is that they never bothered to validate their initial assumptions about the other, and those assumptions could be entirely wrong. Joe might have been upset about the latest political development highlighted in the news; Anne might have been advising Paul on what to buy his wife for her birthday.
A great way to avoid misjudging your partner is to schedule a daily time to sit down and talk in a structured way. In such a process, partners take turns describing how they are feeling, what they want to confess, what they admire about each other, and what they need at that moment and in the near future. It works best if there’s no time limit and if each partner remains silent while the other talks, asking questions and making comments only at the end. It also helps if you do this process at the same time every day so that it becomes a habit.
This process not only aids communication in the moment; it also builds intimacy over time. Partners who try this process invariably report being surprised by what their mates bring up, no matter how well they assumed they were communicating previously. The reality is that in our busy lives, we often don’t find time to report on the nuances of emotion we feel during the day or even on the choices we’ve made, but installing such a process forces the issue so that we stay in touch with each other’s moods, silences, irritations, and needs—and in doing so, intercept possible problems before they build and erupt.
2. Try Nonviolent Communication. The psychologist Marshall Rosenberg developed a clear four-step pathway to having conversations that lead to understanding and cooperation rather than to fighting and saying things you’ll later regret.5 In a typical scenario, we discover something that upsets us and react quickly with anger or hurt. “How could you leave the window of the Prius open when you knew it was going to rain?” Such reactions shame the listener and typically provoke a defensive response. “It’s not like you haven’t done stupid things! Buying that bomb of a car in the first place…” And so it goes, spiraling downwards until both parties have been thoroughly insulted and alienated.
In nonviolent communication, you take a four-step approach to communicating your displeasure or needs.6 First, you state the facts without any judgement or editorial comment. You left the window to the Prius open and it rained. Now the seat is soaked. That’s a world away from the typical “What on earth were you thinking when you left that window open?” This step can be tricky, because it’s easy to insert judgement even into so-called factual statements. You lied about spending money on that coat. There’s judgment inherent in accusing someone of lying, and where there’s judgement, you can be sure you’ll receive a “violent” reaction. The nonviolent equivalent might be, “You said you weren’t buying that coat, but I saw a charge for it on the MasterCard statement.”
The second step is to state how the problem that arose makes you feel. To do this, you need to first be clear about exactly how you do feel. This might require you to take a few moments alone to reflect or even write out what it is you’re experiencing. And then, when you state your feelings, it’s important, once again, to refrain from judging or blaming the other person. Seeing the MasterCard bill made me feel hurt and ignored.
The third step is to express the desire behind your feelings without blaming the other person. I wanted you to tell me if you made any new charges on the card so that I could track our expenses better. Also, I value it so much when we make decisions together.
And finally, make a clean request of the other person. I’d like for you to share with me if there’s something you want to buy.
This is a very simplified summary of how NVC works, but there’s plenty of material on the internet that will clarify the process. You can also refer directly to Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.7
There are many other techniques and processes that can aid communication, even when things seem hopeless, beyond repair. But these two methods are two of the most powerful tools you can use. They’ll not only help you communicate your own needs more clearly and hear your partner without distortion, but they’ll also help you get clearer about your own emotional state and needs, and that’s at least as important as hearing and communicating to another.
- 1. Chalabi, Mona. “When Will Everyone I Know Be Married?” 1 September 2015. FiveThirtyEight. 6 April 2017. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/when-will-everyone-i-know-be-married/
- 2. Wang, Wendy and Parker, Kim. “Record Share of Americans Have Never Married.” 24 September 2014. Pew Research Center. 6 April 2017. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/09/24/record-share-of-americans-have-never-married/
- 3. Agiesta, Jennifer. “AP-WE tv Poll: Go ahead, get your Valentine a present. Odds are, he or she will appreciate it.” 13 February. AP. 6 April 2017. http://ap-gfkpoll.com/featured/our-latest-poll-findings-33
- 4. Tse, Iris. “5 Ways Relationships Are Bad for Your Health.” 11 February 2011. Live Science. 6 April 2017. http://www.livescience.com/35469-5-ways-relationships-are-bad-for-your-health.html
- 5. “Nonviolent Communication (Extracts from Marshall Rosenberg books).” 7 April 2017. http://www.ayahuasca-wasi.com/english/articles/NVC.pdf
- 6. “How to Practice Nonviolent Communication.” WikiHow. 7 April 2017. http://www.wikihow.com/Practice-Nonviolent-Communication
- 7. https://www.amazon.com/Nonviolent-Communication-Language-Marshall-Rosenberg/dp/1892005034