Couples communication skills

Couples Communication 101: Simple but not Easy

As a San Francisco couples therapist, I often see couples that want to work on their communication.

After all, good communication between partners is the foundation for building a strong relationship.

If communicating with your partner leads to disagreements or shut downs, both of you could benefit from learning to communicate more effectively.

There are many facets to clear and productive communication in an intimate relationship.
But the most basic couples communication skill (and sometimes the most difficult) looks like this:

  • Partner A talks
  • Partner B listens

And then you switch…

  • Partner B talks
  • Partner A listens

Seems simple, right?

Then why is this often so hard to do?

When you’re upset with your partner this basic communication skill can feel almost impossible.

Your feelings simply (or not so simply) get in the way of both partners talking AND listening.
You interrupt each other.
You talk over one another.
You can’t wait for your partner to finish talking so you can have your say.

Let’s try something different. Something better.


Basic couples communication skills

Guidelines for talking

What are you actually feeling?
Before you talk, think about how you’re feeling.

If you’re upset or hurt, what you say may be affected by those feelings. You might sound angry or defensive.

Everyone falls into this trap occasionally when emotions are strong. To get around this ‘trap’ you need to know what you’re feeling underneath the upset or the hurt.

For example, if you’re missing your partner because they’ve been working a lot and you want to spend more time with them, say that. Don’t accuse them of not caring about you or of being a workaholic.

Talk about YOUR internal experience, not what you think your partner’s internal experience is.
Talking about your internal experience means you focus on what you feel and need – versus telling your partner what they feel or need.

This means you simply focus on what you KNOW, not what you think you know.
No mind reading allowed. Focus on articulating what’s going on for you.

How you say it matters.
Pay attention to how you’re talking.

Keep the tone, volume and pace as even-keeled as possible. Even if what you’re talking about is bringing up strong emotions.

One trick to do this is to lower your voice and slow down your speech pattern. Not only does this allow you to calm down, but it also will ensure your partner stays at that level too.

Pay attention to your body language. Avoid pointing your finger angrily at your partner, or glaring at them. Instead, focus on relaxing your body and remembering that you care about the person you’re talking to.


Guidelines for listening

When you’re listening, take some deep breaths and actually look at your partner.

Put aside your own hurts and anger for the moment and get curious about what’s going on for them.

If it feels impossible to be open and curious about what they’re saying, pretend they’re a stranger for a moment. Seriously. Try it.

If you temporarily pretend they’re a stranger while they talk, it can lower your emotional arousal.

This allows you to hear what they are saying, not what you think they are saying – or what you imagine they are saying.

Again, pay attention to your body language as you’re listening. Don’t turn away or roll your eyes. Try to adopt a bodily stance of openness and gentle curiosity by looking at your partner and softening your gaze. Keep your hands relaxed.

Even if you don’t feel that open and curious about your partner’s experience, changing how you are holding your body may shift things.

Remember that you love the person who is talking.


How you say it matters

Talking about how you feel also sounds simple.

But this is different than everyday speech; this is thoughtful communication with the intention to express your true thoughts and feelings in a way that your partner can actually receive.

You may wonder why you have to think about what you say before you say it.
You might think, “Well, if I have to watch what I’m saying then I’m not really being honest.”

But if you’re truly looking to communicate, there are ways you can be honest and still keep your partner open to what you are saying.

If you communicate in a way that immediately shuts your partner down, they won’t be able to do their part and listen.


Here are some examples of things you might say that are likely to shut your partner down.

1. Black and White Statements:

“You always do x!” Or, “You never do x!”

Black and white statements don’t reflect reality.
Your partner can start to feel attacked and will stop listening as they think back to all the times these statements were not the case.

Try this instead:
“Often you do x, and it makes me feel y.”
Or, “You rarely do x, which makes me feel y.”

2. Mind Reading Statements:

Imagine you said, “You care more about work than you care about me.”

You can’t possibly know what’s going on in your partner’s mind. And assuming you do know will put your partner on the defensive.

Mind reading statements feel invasive and critical. Especially if they don’t accurately reflect what’s true for your partner.

Try this instead:
“When you work a lot, I feel alone and miss you.”
Or, “When you spend so much time working, I worry that I’m not important to you.”

3. Put-downs:

“You’re such a control freak.”

Criticisms are a no-no in a relationship.

Again, your partner will feel defensive, hurt or angry (wouldn’t you?). Things will begin to escalate and you won’t be heard.

Try this instead:
“Sometimes I feel like you tell me how to do things. I care about how you want things done, and I also want to be able to do things my way – or find a compromise.”


Know what you’re feeling

As the talker, your job is to really know what you’re feeling.

It sounds so simple, but it’s not always easy.

For example, you may be aware that you’re feeling angry. The more you think about it, though, you come to realize that what you actually are is hurt – because your partner chose to spend the night partying with friends instead of being with you.

This might cause you to feel angry, but underneath that anger is hurt that your partner made that choice. Talking about the core (or original feeling) and not secondary feelings is more vulnerable and more honest.

Here’s another example of how core feelings can get covered up:
Your partner’s been drinking too much after you both agreed to cut down.

You may start talking about how you can’t trust them or how disappointed you feel.

But underneath that mistrust and disappointment may be fear. You’re really worried about your partner’s health and the wellbeing of your family.


Effective couples communication makes or breaks a relationship.

It will take some effort, but it can be learned.


Do you need help talking, or listening, to your partner?

Call for a phone consultation 415-310-5142 to see how couples therapy can help you.