In This Article
- Is it Possible to Improve Communication in a Relationship?
- 1. Make it a priority
- 2. Set aside time for each other
- 3. Slow down and listen
- 4. Take turns sharing
- 5. Look for clues about hidden messages.
- 6. Ask for clarification
- 7. Don’t let the conversation drift too far
- 8. Watch your tone
- 9. Avoid criticism
- 10. Give the benefit of the doubt
- 11. Be present
- Wrap Up
Is it Possible to Improve Communication in a Relationship?
Ask most couples what area needs the most work in their relationship, they will say, communication.
What makes communication so difficult in a long term relationship? You would think it would only get better with time. But that’s rarely the case. It seems time has a deterioration effect on effective communication. It’s as if the 2nd law of thermodynamics takes hold in the relationship.
Note: The 2nd law of thermodynamics states “when energy changes from one form to another form, or matter moves freely, entropy (disorder) in a closed system increases.”
In other words, things will deteriorate over time if left to themselves. When it comes to marriage, this means we must be proactive about keeping the channels of communication open. If not, time will close the door, so to speak.
In this article we will cover 11 ways to improve your marriage communication.
NOTE: Scroll down to see 11 Ways to Improve Communication in a Relationship Infographic
Before we jump in to these 11 principles, allow me to set the stage.
Meet Tom and Alice
I will talk about a fictitious couple named Tom and Alice. They are not real. Yet, in a sense, they are very real. I’ve counseled hundreds of couples through the years. Tom and Alice represent the typical, average American couple. They have a pretty good marriage. Of course, they need some work. But they love each other and work on their relationship when needed.
To make a few points, I will put Tom and Alice in situations to illustrate how many couples respond.
Now…let’s dig in to 11 ways to improve communication in a relationship.
1. Make it a priority
This should be a given. Yet I’ve found many couple dream of having better communication, but they seldom set it as a top priority. It’s more of a wish than a priority.
When something is a priority, it moves to the top of the agenda. You value it above other things.
Communication should be one of your top priorities.
Without good communication, life gets bumpy. It’s tough enough when you are on the same page. It’s near impossible when you are not.
Think about it. Everything revolves around communicating with your spouse. Family issues that need to be discussed and resolved. Work related issues. Friendship and extended family. In each case, effective communication is at the heart of relationship. If you don’t communicate, you can’t move forward. Things don’t get done. Conflicts aren’t resolved.
Effective communication is necessary. It affects every area of our life. Make it a priority. Especially with your spouse.
Tom and Alice understand this principle.
They enjoy being together. However, sometimes Tom gets wrapped up in his business. He runs a small construction company and has the responsibility of a crew of workers. This weighs on him, but he values his wife and family, so he tries to keep them a priority.
For Tom, it means reminding himself WHY he does what he does. He enjoys his work, but it is not his life. He works so he can create the marriage and family he desires.
2. Set aside time for each other
Not only does it have to be a priority, it has to be on the calendar.
We are all guilty of saying something is important but never making time for it. It has to be more than an ideological value; something we say is important. It has to be something we take action on.
This is where Tom and Alice fall short. They have very busy lives. Their daughter, Jessica, is their only child. They have a lot of activities revolved around her school, volleyball and music. They feel the ‘pinch’ at times on their marriage. But they justify their busy schedules by saying, ‘We do this for Jessica.’
Perhaps the best way to make marriage communication a priority is to actually schedule time to be with your partner. Put it on the calendar. Make it a date.
My wife and I have a weekly ‘date day.’ Generally we do not go to the movie or get with other couples. This day is for us. It’s not about an activity we enjoy (we have other times for those things), it’s about bonding. Spending time together to make sure we connect.
We recently took a day trip to Boulder, Colorado. Since living in Colorado, this was the first time we visited Boulder. The Pearl Street Mall was a blast. We shopped. Walked. Had dinner at a great Italian place. But most of all, we strolled around the shops and talked. We discussed recent events with work. Talked about our kids and grand kids.
It was a time to catch up and connect.
It’s something we value so much that it goes on the calendar. Only on rare occasions will we interrupt our date day.
3. Slow down and listen
Life runs at break neck speed. To communicate we need to learn how to slow down and listen to our spouse.
To connect, we need to disconnect. The only way to connect with your spouse is to have times when you disconnect from everything else.To connect with your spouse or partner you need to disconnect from other things. Click To Tweet
Communication is really about connection. It’s not simply the transmittal of information. It’s the bond that happens when we spend time together doing meaningful things.
To effectively communicate we need to make sure we are slowing down enough to let the bonds of love grow strong. One of the lessons I’ve learned over the years is how slowing down can help your marriage. But I want you to notice the two things mentioned in this point: slowing down AND listening.
It’s not enough to take a break from your busy life; you have to make sure you tune in to what your spouse is saying. Never forget the goal. Communication is about connecting. Relating.
Relationship Vs Relating
Years ago I taught a marriage session on the difference between relationship and relating. Relationship is a noun. As a noun it is passive. Relating is a verb. Verbs are action oriented. To make the most of your marriage, you have to move from passively letting life pass by, to actively engage in each others life.
Tom and Alice have a relationship. Truly relating to one another is where things tend to break down.
Here’s a key concept: Just because you love one another doesn’t mean you relate (communicate) well. But…if you love one another you strive to relate to one another. Relating is in the DNA of love. There is an internal ‘code’ that pushes us to connect with those we love.Just because you love one another doesn't mean you relate (communicate) well. It takes work and skill. Click To Tweet
By slowing down, Tom and Alice can move their relationship to a deeper connection. One where ‘relating’ happens.
Because we move at break neck speed, it’s difficult to connect. It’s like trying to pet a cat. If you chase them, they run in a thousand different directions. But if you sit still, they will come to you and sit in your lap.
4. Take turns sharing
Don’t interrupt when your partner is talking.
I know you have things you want to say in response to what you heard, but be patient. Interrupting only interferes with what you are trying to accomplish, ie., connecting.
Many times I will have couples share something on a particular topic. I want to see them interact.
Too often people don’t listen to the other person; they are more interested in what they are going to say next. So they actually tune out so they can think about what they want to say.
I tell couples, it’s okay to wait to talk. You will get your turn. The key…the real goal…is to hear what the other person is saying.
Body language is important. Don’t ignore the little signs your partner gives you.
Here’s an example. If your spouse frowns while you are telling them something, don’t ignore it. But don’t assume it’s because they don’t agree.
It could be that your conversation reminds him of something else. Don’t assume it is a direct response to you.
Unfortunately, many couples are weak at communicating their real needs. They often opt for nonverbal cues, hoping their spouse picks up on those tiny signals. While it is not fair to your spouse, we still tend to do this. Especially if the subject is sensitive. We send little signals hoping our mate picks up on them and responds positively.
Knowing that, it’s important to look for those hidden messages. When we pick up on them, engage. Make it easy for your spouse to talk to you. This will open the door for better communication in the future.
We will see this in action when we revisit Tom and Alice in a moment.
6. Ask for clarification
Most miscommunication is the result of misunderstanding.
The best way to eliminate (or reduce) misunderstanding is to ask for clarification.
A simple question can often clear up any possible misunderstanding. Learn to ask your spouse ‘clarifying questions.’
Here is a sample of question you can ask:
- What did you mean when you said __________.
- Does this mean you feel ____________.
- Sometimes it’s best to ask them to clarify or give an example.
This is important because communication is more about connecting than transmitting information.Most miscommunication is the result of misunderstanding. Click To Tweet
7. Don’t let the conversation drift too far
On our ‘day dates’ my wife and I have no agenda. Our conversation drifts. We talk about what ever inspires us.
There are other times, however, when we need to discuss something specific. During these times, it’s good to keep ‘on point’ and not let the conversation drift too far.
Here’s an example of how it can drift in a negative direction.
Tom, Alice and Jessica
Tom and Alice are having problems with their daughter, Jessica. Her grades are failing and she is spending too much time with her boyfriend. They are both concerned that if something doesn’t change, she will not pass her finals.
Alice brings up the issue to Tom. She is frustrated. She feels like she has carried most of the weight of this problem. As they talk about solutions, Tom pushes back in his chair slightly, folds his arms, and stares into space for a minute. Finally he breaks his silence. “Alice, I think you may be over reacting a bit.” The conversation is beginning to veer off track. Alice responds that Tom is not involved in Jessica’s life. Now it’s getting way off track. Alice believes this is the reason Jessica is so ‘into her new boyfriend.’ If Tom would take a little more initiative, Jessica wouldn’t struggle so much in school. Her grades wouldn’t suffer and she would be home more.
Can you see how the conversation is no longer about solving a problem. It has drifted. Now the issue is who is to blame from Jessica’s behavior. Also note that Tom sent a handful of nonverbal signals. His posture in the chair changes. He folds his arms. He stares into space as if disconnecting.
Maybe Tom was disconnecting. Or perhaps he was simply thinking. Remember, don’t ignore nonverbal cues. But don’t rush to interpret them.
When discussing sensitive issues, both parties need to be aware of these nonverbal cues. We need to know when the conversation drifts. If it detected, gently guide the subject back to the real issue.
It takes finesse to do this right. It also takes work. The natural tendency seems to be to find someone to blame. But this never solves the problem. Staying on the main issue will move the conversation forward. And keep peace in the home.
If there are things that need to change, we must tie them to the real issue. We cannot afford to place blame or insinuation.
8. Watch your tone
It’s often not what is said, but how it is said that triggers negative emotions. This goes along with the previous point. When the conversation veers off track, it is usually accompanied by a negative tone. Accusations. Insinuations. Blame. We toss them like arrows at one another.
To communicate effectively we need to make sure our words and tone are in sync with what we want to communicate.
The tone of our words can either make or break a conversation.
Make sure you watch your tone when you engage in a discussion or conversation. Especially if sensitive information is being discussed.
Tom and Alice don’t shout. They seldom raise their voice. Yet, they ‘intone’ in ways that signal their frustration and anger. Those vocal tones set the emotional tone of the room.The tone of our words can either make or break a conversation. Click To Tweet
9. Avoid criticism
In the heat of conflict it is easy for things to turn sour. This is where the accusations mentioned in points #7 and #8 come in. The end result is criticism. And no one responds well to it.
There are three major pit falls that are often associated with criticism:
1. Passing judgment on each other.
Back to Tom and Alice. The trouble began when Tom insinuates that Alice is over reacting. I’m sure it runs much deeper. Alice is frustrated that Tom is so consumed with work he is not present when he is with Jessica. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Tom’s comment triggers something in Alice.
Tom passes judgement on Alice. This sets a negative mood. Unless someone breaks the tension, things will only get worse from here. Alice feels she must justify herself. So she paints a picture of how he doesn’t communicate well with Jessica. And from there things spiral more and more.
Passing judgment on one another never…never…produces a positive outcome. Negative and positive are polar opposites. A negative will never produce a positive. Thus a negative comment cannot create a positive atmosphere.
Think about it. How do YOU respond when someone judges you? When they criticize you? (I’m not talking about constructive criticism you ask for. This is about negative, detrimental judgment.)
Criticism is most often associated with judging. Not only does judging fail to solve the problem; it creates a climate of tension that is hard to change.Passing judgment on one another never...never...produces a positive outcome. Click To Tweet
This leads to the next pit…
2. Assuming you understand
We hear it a lot. Your spouse begins to explain something and your natural response is ‘Yea…Yea…I know. I get it!’
Problem is, we seldom do ‘get it.’ That’s usually a cover up. A mask. It is a way of deflecting the conversation so we don’t have to deal with something uncomfortable.
When my children were younger I heard this frequently. ‘I know dad!’ They would drag out the ‘a’ in dad which made it sound like daaauuud. This was there code for leave me alone. I don’t want to hear it.
Assuming you know all the correct information will keep you from finding a positive solution.
Key? Listen to the entire problem…the whole conversation BEFORE you come to conclusions.
3. Using insults to make a point
This usually nails the coffin shut on the possibility of solving the problem. Once insults begin, there is no use in continuing the conversation. It’s best for both parties to go to their corners (boxing analogy intentional), and take a break.
Get your wounds tended to.
Take a breath.
Then try again.
Until then, it’s best to cease from discussing the issues.
If I were counseling Tom and Alice, I would encourage them to slow down. I would challenge them to allow the other person to finish their conversation. I would suggest they don’t jump to conclusions. That they withhold criticism.
10. Give the benefit of the doubt
I was the pastor of a local church years ago. During that time, I had the privilege of leading some of the finest men and women I know. There are always problems to deal with. Conflicts to resolve, and issues that had to be ironed out. Yet it was a good experience.
Partly because we had a rule. We didn’t always follow it (nobody is perfect). But we knew when we violated it. We did our best to make it right and get back on track when we did. The rule? Always give the benefit of the doubt.
If something is said that you disagree with, don’t take it personal. Trust the motives of the other person. This is especially important in a marriage.
Remember, your goal is to communicate and connect. Sometimes words come out wrong, things are said in a way that can be misunderstood. So here’s a rule of thumb to use when this happens: Give the other person the benefit of the doubt.
And don’t take things personal.
Sure, if you are overtly insulted, that’s personal. But most couples don’t do this. Yet there are times when something ‘could’ be taken the wrong way. Give your spouse the benefit of the doubt.
At this point you would also apply #6 and ask for clarification.
It’s also okay to say, ‘That stings a little. Can you tell me what you mean by that because I don’t want to take it personal. I want to give you the benefit of the doubt and trust that you love me and think good of me.’
This opens the door to clear up any misunderstanding. When you give the benefit of the doubt, you build a bridge for conversation. For communication.
When you don’t give the benefit of the doubt, you build a deeper gulf that gets harder to cross. Your goal in marriage is build bridges. Not gulfs.
The Bridge for Tom and Alice
For Tom and Alice to connect over this issue – to build a bridge instead of a gulf between them – they both need to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Trust allows this. When we trust our spouse, we can make room for small miscommunications. We can overlook words that could be misunderstood. To give each other the benefit of the doubt allows us to overlook things that can get us off track.
11. Be present
In my experience with couples, I’ve found the biggest problem is when one partner ‘checks out.’
Being present means you stay in the moment. It’s easy to get distracted. Something is said that triggers a chain reaction of thoughts. Before you know it, you focus on something else. You check out.
Most of the time failure to be present is unintentional. It’s accidental. Our minds wander.Being present means you stay in the moment. It's easy to get distracted. The DNA of love is connection. Click To Tweet
Sometimes, one partner willingly disconnects. They intentionally disengage from the conversation. Maybe it is uncomfortable, irritating or uninteresting.
Whatever the reason, fight the temptation to mentally disconnect and check out. Work hard to stay present.
To make marriage work – to build the kind f relationship that is meaningful and valuable – both parties must put these guidelines into practice.
What about Tom and Alice? Will they resolve their issue over Jessica? It all depends. If they apply these 11 ways to improve communication in a relationship they can move forward. They can build a bridge and resolve the conflict. Most of all, they can turn this situation around and connect on a deeper level. By putting these principles into place they can build a healthier relationship.
How about you?
I would like to hear from you.
Which one of these 11 items is the most difficult for you to implement?
Which ones mean the most? Why?
Leave a comment below and let’s keep the conversation going.
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