In my work with couples who are experiencing marriage and relationship challenges I have found that certain skills and knowledge about how to better communicate and relate to one another have been very helpful for building a healthier relationship.
The first suggestion is to take a break if you’re stressed and only talk about concerns when you’re at a mild or moderate level of stress because during higher levels of stress our brain processes and interprets what is communicated in a more generalized and negatively biased way. So, if your stress is elevated, let your partner know. You might say something like “I care about having this conversation, and would like to continue when I’m feeling calmer, but I am overwhelmed to the extent that I worry I’m not able to stay constructive and interpret things accurately. So, are you okay if we postpone until we both feel ready?”.
If you don’t already find yourself in the middle of a discussion, try to be mindful of a time that a conversation might work for the other person too, and check-in with them about this so that each person can be ready to talk when they are at a moderate level of stress and at their best for accurately and constructively communicating.
When it’s a relatively good time to have a conversation, and you are ready to begin, try to slow the pace down of what you are saying a bit more than usual as a slower pace of speech allows what is said to be accurately interpreted to a greater degree. When we talk fast it increases stress levels and makes it more likely that our brain will fill in the gaps in a negatively biased and generalized manner. Also, breathe a bit slower, and make your exhales a little longer than usual. Exhaling activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) a little each time, which calms you down. If you exhale for a longer period, this activates the PNS longer thus assisting with reducing stress levels and improving clarity of thought. Stress is a big factor in how we react to what another is communicating to us, so it is important to reduce stress levels when having important discussions.
A good way to start a discussion is prefacing with a positive or caring sentiment before the content of the concern as this primes the brain and reduces defensiveness. This is because all subsequent dialogue is greatly interpreted through the lens and connotations of what is initially said. An example of prefacing might be (e.g. “I wanted to talk because I really care about working this out” (recognition), or “I see the effort and work and care you are putting into the relationship even if we disagree on some important points” (validation), or “I don’t think it’s your intention” (understanding).
When starting to express the content of your concerns or needs try to use “I” statements and the impact this as on you, such as “When I noticed/saw/heard, ___the impact it had on me is that I felt misunderstood”. Try to describe the underlying feelings. Talking about the perceived behaviour keeps it tentative, affirms self-agency in the other, reduces defensiveness, and allows for clarification of what was initially perceived. Try to avoid making personal attacks about the person, and instead focus on the behaviour.
It is common for couples to use labels when communicating, such as “You’re lazy” or “Our relationship is in the gutter”. Instead, describe and elaborate on what the underlying feelings and experiences are underneath the label. Monitor the labels you use and break these down to more neutral terms and specific concerns. For example, instead of using “our relationship is in the gutter” try saying something like, “I am exhausted and overwhelmed with “, or “I am having a difficult time feeling optimistic because __”. Labels are a broad generalization and they have connotations that are associated with, for example, disgust and lack of value for the relationship. Avoid using short-hand labels. Take the time to describe the underlying feelings and the needs below the labels.
Empathy is a commonly misunderstood practice. Many people first think of empathy as agreeing or sympathizing. Empathy is not about agreeing with the other; it is about putting oneself in the frame of reference of the other and expressing understanding of what they are experiencing without necessarily agreeing with their perspective. Empathy helps create a sense of feeling understood, which has a calming effect because a frequent source of anger is the perception that the other does not understand or care about our concerns and inner experience. Try to identify, and then express what you see the other person might be feeling, what they might be needing, and describe how you care about it. This promotes validation and enhances connection in the relationship.
There are several ways to foster a greater emotional impact of what you actually express. The first suggestion would be to talk face-to-face (vs talking while driving). Being able to see the facial cues and non-verbal body language of each other, and having reduced distraction, are very helpful in interpreting one another’s intentions more accurately. Try to talk about one point at a time, keep it simple and brief, and take turns (e.g., 20-30 secs each) so that what is said can be processed and not forgotten or swept under the rug inadvertently. Our short-term memory is only about 30 seconds long, so it is important to keep each person’s turn brief so that the point you are trying to make can remembered and addressed by the other person. Another tip to make an emotional impact goes back to talking at a slightly slower pace as this allows stress levels in the other to reduce a bit more thereby making their brain more receptive to fully grasping what you are expressing and being open to the emotional significance of it. Talking a bit slower also non-verbally lets the other person know that you respect and care about the conversation you are having.