Couples Communication: Creating a More Satisfying Relationship – for Life

Part IX: Make the Relationship a Priority

I once saw a couple we’ll call the Joneses. They walked into my office and said, “We’re really good at Jones Incorporated. We do a great job of managing our finances, managing our household, raising our kid, and all the other practical aspects of our family. But we’ve lost each other.”

They had stopped connecting with each other in terms of emotional intimacy. They were high-functioning, efficient, productive roommates. They were not fighting, arguing, or especially angry – but they weren’t very caring or loving either.

This is one of the most common couples problems I see in my practice. There are not necessarily any deep-seated emotional issues they are avoiding – they have simply stopped making the relationship a priority. They are busy transporting their kids to sports events, working at their jobs, managing the household, maybe volunteering in the community – and taking each other for granted. I only half-jokingly tell my clients that the two things people take for granted and stop putting effort into are exercise and their relationship.

Absolutely nothing in your life will work or provide satisfaction if you don’t put time, effort and energy into it.  Let me say that again: Absolutely nothing in your life will work or provide satisfaction if you don’t put time, effort and energy into it.  Ask yourself very honestly – how much time, effort, and energy are you putting into your relationship? What did you do to feed your relationship this week? Last week? In the past month? What other parts of your life do you expect to provide rewards when you don’t put anything into them? Your health? Your career? Your finances? Your house?

You have a lot of demands on you, a lot to juggle and manage in your life. Work/life balance is a serious challenge for many of us. Babysitters are scarce, money is tight, and you’re tired. I joke that half of my couples clients would be “cured” if there were 48 hours in a day (the other half would be “cured” if they made a pill that made people patient).

So given the limitations of a 24-hour day, what can you do? Date nights on a regular basis are great if you can make it happen. The dates don’t have to be expensive or fancy – just the two of you enjoying time as a couple. During your date, don’t make side trips to the store, and don’t spend the whole time talking about the business of your lives – just spend the time relating to each other as a couple.

I advise almost every couple I see to find ways to spend more time with each other. Some of them come back and say, “No, we didn’t spend any time together – we just went to the grocery store, department store, and ran errands.” Others come back and say, “Yes, we spent time together – we went to the grocery store, department store, and ran errands together – and we made it fun. We talked and enjoyed our time together.”

I knew a couple who started their day together early, before the kids got up, talking over coffee on their porch. Another couple solved the time-together challenge by showering together in the morning. Whatever you decide to do together, put it on the calendar and make it happen – don’t let it be just a back-up plan in case you run out of chores and projects to do.

If you allow yourselves to become strangers and roommates, there will be no meaningful communication or connection – and very little satisfaction. Nurture your relationship, and the rewards can make everything else in your life easier.

Couples Communication: Creating a More Satisfying Relationship – for Life

Part VIII: Building Empathy, or, Practice Makes Permanent 

If you have been reading this series, you have learned about using the nuts and bolts of effective couples communication in a way that promotes emotional growth; you’ve tried to get outside of your own persepctive and get curious about your partner’s experience; and you have worked on creating a safe environment in which you can discuss feelings in a non-reactive way.

 Now it’s time to practice, practice, practice. In Harville Hendrix’s classic book, “Getting the Love You Want,” he talks about the Couples Dialogue exercise. It is basically a discussion of any topic that is an issue for the couple, using the tools of mirroring, validation, and empathy statements.

 An example: 

“I’m feeling frustrated and rejected that we’re not spending more time together.”

The partner mirrors back: “So you’re feeling frustrated and rejected that I’ve been spending so much time working in the evenings. Did I get that right? That makes sense – I can understand how you would feel that way. I would imagine you’re feeling like a low priority. Is there more?”

 “Yes. This feels like a pattern of you finding things to do that take you away from spending time with me.”

 “So it seems to you that I have a pattern of finding things to do other than spend time with you. Did I get that? I can see how you would feel that way. I’d imagine that makes you feel rejected.”

 At this point it’s the listener’s turn to speak. The listener does not need to defend or respond directly to what has been said, but just to say whatever is on their mind at this time. The other partner then makes statements to mirror, validate, and empathize.

 Practicing this exercise trains you and your partner that speaking about feelings or concerns is not threatening, dangerous, or unduly difficult. It is simply a normal part of maintaining and developing your relationship. So, we are using simple communication tools not only to address communication issues, but also to build trust and empathy,  and to deepen the relationship. 

Couples Communication: Creating a More Satisfying Relationship – for Life

Part VII: Managing Anger and Reactivity

Are you or your partner quick to anger? Are small comments or questions met with disproportionate defensiveness? Do small disagreements turn into major fights? In an environment of high emotional reactivity, couples are not going to make themselves vulnerable, take emotional risks – or get closer. Instead, such an environment promotes the building up of walls, defensiveness, and resentment – the opposite of what you need to develop intimacy.

 I have worked with some couples who readily absorbed the concepts and techniques of effective couples communication that I offered them. But they would go home, activate each others’ emotional reactivity, and have enormous blow-out fights. Needless to say, at those moments they did not use the communication skills they had learned.

 After a few sessions of this, I finally realized we needed to work on not escalating. What I did with them was some basic anger management. We did not drill deeply into the roots of their angry feelings, we did not devote very much time to exploring their individual past histories with angry communication, and we did not spend too much time having them talk back and forth about their anger.

 Instead, we just had them learn to control it, the way they do in every other aspect of their lives.   After that, they were able to do a much better job of managing their reactivity, so they could start to communicate in a mature and constructive way. At that point, they could begin to really benefit from the couples work we were doing.

 So, some tips on how not to escalate:

 Recognize that you may not be able to get immediate resolution to whatever is bothering you at that moment. Your choices are to sit with the discomfort, or lash out and have a pointless fight that resolves nothing, but pushes you farther away from each other. Recognize that those are your only two choices and choose accordingly.

 Then, acknowledge to yourself that you are angry, and that you do not want the negative consequences of expressing it inappropriately. Count to ten. Take a break from the situation. Walk around the block. There is a strong physical component to emotional states. Getting the feelings out physically can be very helpful. I advised a client to walk around the block when he gets angry at his wife. He came back the next week and said, “I did what you said, when I got angry at my wife, I walked around the block –  and it didn’t work. So I walked around the block a second time, and THAT worked.”

 Make an agreement with each other that it is OK to ask for and to give a time-out – a cooling-off period when discussions get heated. Part of the deal is that you won’t just let the issue drop, but that you will come back to resume the discussion later when you are both in a more constructive frame of mind.

 Delay a complaint. When something is bothering you, practice not saying anything about it for 20 minutes, an hour, or 24 hours. See if the importance and intensity of the complaint changes with time. If you decide the issue is still worth talking about, you will be able to bring it up with your partner in a less emotional state, feeling calmer and better able to use your effective communication tools. You are also learning the valuable skill of sitting with an uncomfortable feeling without having to immediately act on it.

 You simply cannot make progress in your relationship unless you get a handle on emotional reactivity. Practice these techniques faithfully, and you will be on the road to the closeness and intimacy you desire.

Couples Communication: Ceating a More Satisfying Relationship – for Life

Part V: Effective Listening

“I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” ― Alan Greenspan

 Effective listening deserves as much attention as effective speaking. If what we’re doing when the other person is speaking is simply formulating our rebuttal, looking for the parts we disagree with, or looking for things to justify our own feelings, then our response is not likely to be productive. Instead, listen to understand: to understand where your partner is, how they feel, and most importantly, how things look through their eyes.

The listener’s body language speaks volumes. As the speaker, we don’t express ourselves as freely when we’re looking at an angry face, a disbelieving face, a sarcastic face, or a bored, distracted face. Honor your partner by giving them your complete and open attention.

I like to start with the deceptively simple exercise of reflective listening, or mirroring what each other is saying. Whether we believe it or not, we are all poor listeners – we miss and distort an awful lot of what we hear. In the mirroring exercise, the speaker makes a statement, and the listener mirrors it back: “So you’re saying such and such – did I get that right?” The speaker should feel free to correct any mistakes in the listener’s mirroring.

This simple exercise actually builds up several “muscle groups,” so to speak. You are checking out communication – did I understand your message the way you intended it? That can stop quite a few arguments before they begin. And you are letting your partner know they were heard, which is often a welcome change of pace, compared to the feeling of talking to a wall or getting a response that feels dismissive. If someone is saying the same thing over and over, it’s because they have not felt heard the first time. When we can get ourselves to listen with respect and understanding, conflict management often takes care of itself.

One of the most important stretches I ask couples to make is to get curious about each others’ experience. I’ll joke that you may be doing 10 things that would annoy other people, but only one of them is an issue for your partner. Get curious about why that is, about what the behavior that you’re doing means to them. Does it echo experiences they had in their families growing up, or with past relationships? Understand what happens for your partner in those interactions – so that it is not a judgment on you, it’s information about how your partner is wired. That’s good information for you to have. And if you can develop true empathy for your partner’s experience, you will have a much firmer foundation for changing behavior than you would achieve through nagging or some negotiated settlement.

After mirroring what you have heard, make the stretch into empathy, with a statement such as, “And I would imagine that makes you feel…”  So for example, the listener mirrors back, “You’re saying that you feel left out when I make plans with others without checking with you first. Did I get that? I would imagine that makes you feel unimportant.” Again, the speaker can feel free to correct the empathy statement. The listener is trying to understand not how this would make themselves feel, but what does it mean to their partner, who sees and experiences the world differently than they do. The goal of the exercise is not to become a tape recorder or a mind reader, but to develop a habit of checking out communication, clarifying it with each other, and developing a deeper understanding of your partner’s experience.

The more you can empathize with your partner’s experience, the more you can let go of your own defensive posture, and start to open up to a real connection.

 I want to be clear about what empathy is and is not. The aim of empathy is to develop a gut-level understanding of how your partner feels, what the world looks like through their eyes and with their history of experiences, and what a given situation means to them. Your partner is built differently than you, and they interpret and respond to things differently than you do.

Empathizing with your partner does not mean you agree with them, or that they are right and you are wrong. And importantly, it doesn’t mean that you give up the right to assert yourself. Empathy is a two-way street, not a zero-sum game. You are as entitled to your feelings and perspective as your partner is to theirs.

And by the way, there are couples who balk at what they perceive as the artificiality of communication exercises like mirroring. To them I say: you’re right, this is not a natural way of speaking. It is an exercise, just like going to the gym and lifting pieces of metal is an artificial thing to do. But we do it to build muscles and reflexes and to grow – and that’s what we’re doing here. We’re using these exercises to build new ways of responding to our partner so we can build the best relationship we can have.

Couples Communication: Creating a More Satisfying Relationship – for Life

Part IV: If We Can Communicate at Work, We Can Communicate at Home

Many of the communication tools we have been discussing are not a matter of right ways or wrong ways, good or bad, but simply a matter of approaches that work vs. those that don’t. Think about effective communication in the workplace. When we’re frustrated at work, we take our time, collect our thoughts, ask our supervisor when would be a good time to have a discussion, and express our concerns as calmly as we can. Hopefully we even offer potential solutions. Every one of those steps is helpful in couples communication.

It’s not easy to manage our anxiety or frustration, but at work we do it anyway, because we know that any other approach is very likely to fail. We take a breath, and we take our time to think through how we want to deal with the problem, rather than just blurt out a complaint or an accusation. If we can do that at work, we can do it with our partner.

One of the most important considerations in communication is choosing the right time. Nudging your partner in the ribs at 3:00 am and demanding to talk about something that is bothering you is not the start of a productive conversation.

We don’t barge into our supervisor’s office or interrupt them when they are doing something else – we ask for a meeting time. In the same way, it’s hugely helpful to ask our partner whether now is a good time to talk. The answer to that question can be yes, let’s talk, or it could be no, but give me an hour, or any time up to 24 hours, to clear away other distractions.  This approach helps ensure a focused, clear-headed discussion. Importantly, it also makes us practice managing emotions by having to hold on to the issue until the agreed-upon time, rather than immediately spewing out emotions and demanding immediate resolution from our partner.

We’ll talk a little later about the idea of communicating not from our reactive, emotional child-mind, but from our adult, objective logical mind. That’s what we do at work – we try to communicate in a rational, reasonably objective way that recognizes we need to not put the other person on the defensive. And on a good day, we might even offer potential solutions to the work problems we bring up. How often do we do that at home?

It might seem simplistic to apply this work analogy to relationships, but the fact remains that communicating our needs responsibly and maturely is the only possible way that we might get what we want.

Couples Communication: Creating a More Satisfying Relationship – for Life

Part III: More on Effective Speaking 

Last time we talked about the importance of communicating in a way that encourages an empathetic and cooperative response, which helps build your relationship instead of tearing it down. 

So here are some more nuts and bolts on how to do that:  

Directly state what you want, need, or feel – don’t hint at it or manipulate the other – just come out with it. Instead of, “Why do you spend so much time on the couch? Don’t you think that’s bad for your health?” say, “I feel like going for a walk. Would you like to join me?” 

Keep it positive. Say what you want, not what you don’t want.  The statement, “When we go to your parents’ place, I don’t want to be left completely on my own with the kids, ” elicits  “I never leave you alone with the kids – you left me alone with them last time.” Instead, say, “I would like it if we could stick together with the kids when we go to your parents, and then maybe trade off watching them.” That elicits partnering in problem-solving.  

Make requests, not complaints: Not “Why can’t you help out more with the housework?”, but “I would like to try to work out a way to divide the chores more evenly.” 

Be specific rather than general; avoid “always” and “never”; avoid “should” statements. 

Avoid criticizing and sarcasm. Your relationship simply doesn’t need, nor can it afford, statements and actions that tear it down. 

I have had bosses who told me, “Don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions.” We can apply that at home. Rather than accusations and blame, come to each other with a softer approach, and offer a solution to what’s bothering you. Instead of, “You forgot to put gas in my car and I was late for work,” make it, “I really appreciate it when you put gas in my car, but when you can’t do that, can you please let me know so I can plan to take care of it before I have to go to work.” 

Stick to one issue at a time. If you ramble all over with a variety of complaints, then you are the prosecutor making the case that your partner is a terrible person. They’re not likely to say, “Yes, you’re so right, I’ll try to do better about everything in the future.” And the reality is that our attention spans go only so far, so a long drawn-out story will only lose your partner. Stick to the point, which should be about your own feelings.  

If your partner has been offended by your approach, ask them, “What’s an easier way for you to hear that?” You do have a legitimate concern to bring to their attention, but you need to learn how they can best be open to receiving it and responding constructively, instead of shutting down. 

When it comes to discussing bigger, more emotionally-charged issues, it’s helpful to set a time limit on the discussion. Speak to be heard, listen to understand. Keep the focus just on understanding how each other feels, rather than on persuading or building a case. You will be surprised at how quickly you can resolve an issue when you stop trying so hard to make your point. 

End well: I have seen couples in my office have a heated discussion, and then satisfactorily resolve the issue. But they had built up so much tension that they immediately started arguing about something else. I knew a couples therapist who, because of that tension build-up, ended sessions with a joke. A good belly-laugh is a wonderful way to dispel tension built up in the heat of a discussion. A good brisk walk works as well. At the very least, acknowledge to each other that you have done a good piece of work, and now it’s time to close it up and go do something else.  

These are nuts-and-bolts communication tools, but they are also exercises to build patience and mature self-control, which will help you to build a stronger, more satisfying relationship.

Couples Communication: Creating a More Satisfying Relationship – for Life

Part II: Effective Speaking

Working on your relationship is like a physical workout – it requires stretching emotionally and behaviorally.  It takes work, but not as much work as living in a bad relationship. The enemy is “more of the same” – we’re trying to do something new and different.  Working on your relationship is like working on your posture – you have to be very conscious of something that you normally take for granted.

So, as we talk about specific nuts and bolts, do’s and don’ts of communication, it’s important to understand the emotional stretches and growth areas that they are meant to reinforce.

Start by eliminating distractions when you talk so you can focus on each other. Turn off the TV. Face each other, and stay in eye contact. Use “I” statements rather than “You” statements.  When we hear sentences that start with the word “You,” we immediately go on the defensive, and try to get ourselves out of trouble. Instead, get into the habit of saying “I feel X,”  “I want X,” and “I feel X when you do Y.”

When our partner says “I feel,” they are making a statement about themselves.  “I “ statements reinforce that the speaker is taking responsibility for their feelings, as opposed to building the case against “you” the partner. Take the initiative to say where you are, rather than your complaint about the other’s behavior.  

Asking “Why” questions such as “Why did you…Why don’t you…” also puts people on the defensive, and they don’t result in satisfactory answers. Rather, they elicit defensive statements that can quickly lead to escalation. It feels safer to assume a superior stance by saying “Why didn’t you…” compared to the vulnerability of saying “I feel frustrated that you haven’t…” – but one of these is productive, and the other isn’t.

You need to take the risk of expressing yourself in a more vulnerable way. You will not successfully “make your case” to your partner if you are provoking a defensive reaction. If you want to be heard, you need to express yourself clearly but softly, emphasizing your own feelings, rather than your partner’s misdeeds. Presenting your feelings in a more vulnerable way – expressing the hurt and disappointment beneath the anger – enables you to “make your case” much more effectively. That is your best chance to be heard, and to get the loving response you are looking for.

Couples Communication: Creating a More Satisfying Relationship – for Life

Part I: “We’re Not Communicating”

Communication problems are the number one complaint that couples have about their relationship. They either aren’t communicating well, or they aren’t communicating at all. They seem to communicate perfectly well at work and in every other aspect of their lives, but somehow the couples relationship is different.

Why is that?

The answers reveal that we cannot work on communication issues in a vacuum. We also have to address the emotions underlying the communication — or the avoidance of communication.

When we learn to communicate more effectively, we are also learning to be present with one another in a calm and supportive way. We’re learning to manage emotions in a more mature way. And we’re healing the relationship so we can grow in deep and meaningful ways, together.

Over the next several weeks, I will be giving you the tools you need to communicate more effectively and more lovingly with your partner, so you can enjoy the best relationship you can.

Missing the message

I have seen couples who have difficulty clearly communicating the most basic information. At the end of a phone conversation, he believes he has communicated that he will be home several hours late, and she believes she heard that he will be home on time. Such a couple clearly needs help with the nuts and bolts of communication, and lots of practice reflecting back what they heard. An assessment for attention deficit disorder may be a good idea as well.

But for most couples, the problem is in effectively communicating about feelings or about topics that are laden with emotion. So the goal is more than just improved basic communication skills.   It’s learning to manage emotional states as well.  Couples communication exercises help us to do that.

Bottling and exploding

Some individuals have a hard time asking for what they want or need. They either don’t do it at all, leaving them feeling frustrated and unfulfilled, or they bottle up their feelings until they finally speak up in a sharp and attacking way. Out of the clear blue sky, their partner will hear, “You never take me out anymore.” That blaming, accusatory tone triggers a defensive response from their partner. The defensive response leads to escalation of the blaming and complaining, and soon they have a fight that results in hurt feelings, digging in, and even less chance of either partner getting what they want.

Better communication tools would help, but what is also needed is appropriate assertiveness skills and emotional self-control. Blurting out demands and complaints without regard for how they will be received is simply not a winning strategy in any area of life, including relationships.  

Angry pursuit vs. retreat and withdrawal

A common pattern is that one partner angrily pursues, while the other retreats and withdraws. That withdrawal triggers even more angry pursuing, followed by even more withdrawal. The more aggressive partner needs to learn to express themselves in ways that are easier for their partner to hear and respond to positively. And the withdrawn partner needs to find their voice and assert their needs and feelings.


And then there are the relationships where both parties are avoiding contact with each other. They each have walls built up, and they may have started living separate lives, even under the same roof. They need to learn to communicate in ways that feel safe and rewarding, instead of scary and pointless.

Do you see yourself in any of these scenarios? These are common problems, that have effective solutions. You just have to decide that it’s time to make a change and take the risk of trying something different.

Next time, we’ll get into the nuts and bolts of how you and your partner can start to improve your communication, and create a satisfying and rewarding relationship – for life.

What to Do If Your Relationship Is Running Out of Gas

Relationships take work. Patience, perseverance, and compromise are mandatory. There are times when you have to stretch out of your immediate comfort zone and do what is important to your partner instead of what is comfortable for you.

 If it feels like all this effort is draining your emotional gas tank faster than it is being replenished, then you need to find ways to fill it back up. But how?

In so many ways, people, and relationships, are highly complex. But in some ways, they’re pretty simple. If you find a particular experience, place, or TV show to be unpleasant and unrewarding, you’re going to avoid it. If you like it and it makes you feel good, you’re going to keep coming back for more. Are you and your partner making it a rewarding experience to spend time together?

Research has shown that the single most important ingredient in a successful, long-lasting relationship is this: making five times more positive statements than negative ones to your partner. It’s inevitable that you’ll disagree or say things that your partner doesn’t want to hear. Your relationship can handle that - as long as the vast majority of what your partner hears from you is positive.

Appreciations, compliments, praise, and words of encouragement keep the gas tank full. Use them generously. Being stingy with these positive strokes will only work against you – especially if you’re not  being equally stingy with criticism and complaints.