Communication. Communication. Communication.
Everyone from pioneering couples therapist John Gottman to contestants on The Bachelor say that romantic relationships live and die based on communication.
But what does that actually mean? It can’t be just talking with each other more, right? I know plenty of partners who talked all the time but still had issues that eventually tore them apart.
When things get tense in my relationship, I draw on five communication tools I’ve learned from therapists, meditation teachers, and other experts.
I’ll get to those in a moment — but first, here’s an example of how not to communicate.
One time on a hike with my partner and a few friends, I realized I was getting increasingly frustrated. My partner had been questioning my directions, even though I’d hiked the area many times.
I made sure our friends were at a distance and said, “I’m feeling angry. You’re acting like I don’t know where I’m going.”
I’d been going to group therapy and had learned that often the best thing to do is to just say how I feel. I was feeling a little proud that I was able to muster the courage to tell her the truth.
I expected her to apologize and try to understand why I was feeling that way — like the others had done in my group — but she didn’t. Instead, she seemed hurt.
“What?” she said. “Why would you be angry at me?”
Here’s the part I want to highlight as the wrong way to communicate: I froze up. I couldn’t figure out what I was feeling or how to say it. I just kept walking in silence, hoping the tension and discomfort would disappear.
I didn’t realize that, even though I wasn’t saying anything, I was communicating. I was telling my partner, through my actions, that everything was “fine.” That I had no feelings about what had just happened. That I didn’t care that I’d hurt her by being so blunt. All of which was definitely not true.
“So we’re just going to keep walking,” she said, sarcastically. “Everything is fine.”
What happened next is an example of the first communication tool I like to use, repair.
Tool # 1: Repair
As we finished the hike, I asked my partner to step aside as our friends went back to the car. I told her I was sorry for blindsiding her about my anger. I explained why I’d been frustrated.
She explained how she was feeling. Part of me hates to admit this (because I was socialized as a boy not to show vulnerability), but I teared up as I told her how disconnected from her I felt.
She hugged me and said she loved me, which made me feel connected again. We walked to join our friends, both of us feeling closer and more at ease.
Repair, according to John Gottman, is “any statement or action — silly or otherwise — that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.” It can be as simple as a joke to break the tension or as emotionally vulnerable as saying you feel hurt or angry or afraid.
The point is to try to address tension and negativity as soon as possible before things escalate into yelling and harsh words (or, if you’re like me, the silent treatment). Once things are calmer, it’s easier to come to a mutually acceptable resolution. It’s easier for to feel seen, heard, and connected.
So, looking back, the repair on the hike was a collaboration between me and my partner. I had to say how I was feeling, she had to respond with some sarcasm, and then I had to press pause and pull her aside for a deeper conversation. She had to listen to my emotions with care and empathy.
That is all to say, it’s not solely on you to do a repair. It always takes two to tango.
Tool #2: Nonviolent communication
I would’ve listed this communication tool first if I hadn’t started with the story about repair. It comes from nonviolent communication, a set of techniques created by the psychologist Marshall Rosenberg based on principles nonviolence (think Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.).
The technique is to point out something your partner did and share how it made you feel: “When you did X, I felt Y.”
Be honest about your feelings. “I feel lonely.” “I feel sad.” “I feel angry.” Leave it at that. No blaming. No manipulation. Just say how you feel and let your partner take it in.
Don’t say, “When you do X…” or “You’re always doing X…” That will trigger them into getting defensive and not hearing you.
Some examples: “When you changed the topic, I felt ignored and lonely.” “When you stayed out late with your friends, I felt jealous.”
The idea is to own your feelings. You’re not blaming the other person for how you feel. But you’re also naming a boundary. “When you did X…” You’re giving the other person the opportunity to change their behavior rather than assuming they won’t without your manipulation.
This technique will feel uncomfortable. But that discomfort is nothing compared to the chronic tension of trying to talk around, ignore, or manipulate your partner into changing — which rarely actually works.
Tool #3: Speak for parts, not from parts
You’ve probably said something like this before: “Part of me wants this, but another part of me wants that.”
My favorite type of therapy — Internal Family Systems (IFS) — is based on the idea that our personalities are made up of “parts.” These parts have different and often contradictory feelings, beliefs, memories, and thoughts. Like when a part of you wants that bowl of ice cream but another part wants you to lose weight.
Many of our parts were developed when we were children. They get “frozen in time … and keep doing whatever extreme things they did to protect [us] when [we] were young,” says Richard Schwartz, the therapist who developed IFS.
Maybe you have a tendency in relationships to feel jealous when your partner talks with someone who they find attractive. From an IFS perspective, a part of you — not all of you — feels jealous. Another part might feel confident that your partner loves and is committed to you. Another part might even be turned on by it. But the jealous part is the loudest — it takes the steering wheel of your emotions, covering up the other parts of you, making you say and do things you might regret later.
As you get to know your different parts, you can start to speak for them rather than from them. “A part of me is feeling jealous right now.” “A part of me wants to fight that guy you were talking to.”
This allows the fully grown, emotionally mature adult you are now to speak for your inner children. It takes a bit of the emotional charge out of what you’re saying, lowering the odds your partner will get defensive and start a fight or shut down.
(For more on this, check out Schwartz’s book “You’re the One You’ve Been Waiting For.”
Tool #4: Love languages
Each of us has a love language, a particular way we like to express and receive love and intimacy. The five primary types are: quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, gifts, and physical touch.
Which of these sounds like you the most? Let your partner know so they can adjust how they show you love.
Quality time: People whose love language is quality time appreciate when someone is giving them their full attention. They yearn for active listening, eye contact, and full presence. This could mean you and your partner have a date night once a week. (This one is me, 100 percent!)
Words of affirmation: People who appreciate words of affirmation value verbal acknowledgments of affection. They may want to hear frequent “I love you’s,” compliments, and encouragement. If your partner has this love language, you might text that you love them more frequently.
Acts of service: People whose love language is acts of service appreciate others going out of their way to make their life easier. If your partner values acts of service, you might run errands for them or simply ask them how you can help more often.
Gifts: Some people deeply appreciate giving and receiving gifts. This might mean that you spend extra effort buying or making them unexpected gifts.
Physical touch: People whose love language is physical touch feel loved when get physical signs of affection, like kissing, cuddling, and sex. This might mean that you and your partner set aside one or two times a week for massaging or cuddling, with the possibility of sex if you’re both feeling up for it.
Tool #5: Get outside help from a therapist
This one is simple. When your relationship hits rough waters, and you’re struggling to find a way forward, see a therapist!
Getting help from someone outside the relationship is not something to be ashamed about. We live in a society that puts a ton of pressure on relationships, particularly monogamous relationships.
Because genuine community is so hard to come by, our partners are often forced to be our best friends, roommates, business partners, lovers, and more. There’s no use in forcing them to be our therapists too (which is impossible, by the way).
There are many other communication tools for relationships. But those five have helped me the most in dating and relationships.
Hi, I’m Jeremy, a therapist, writer, and meditation teacher. Subscribe to my weekly email to get posts like this straight to your inbox here.
To work with me in individual therapy, join one of my therapy groups, or hire me for meditation classes, get in touch.