The Top Ways to Achieve Effective Communication in a Relationship
No matter how experienced you may be in the dating department, one thing remains constant: Effective communication in a relationship is crucial during every stage, whether it's making clear what you both want in the short- and long-term to defining clear boundaries in the bedroom and beyond. Even couples that appear to be effortlessly happy will admit that romance is only part of the equation to maintaining a loving and healthy relationship—and once you transition from the honeymoon phase into that let's get serious territory, it can be tricky to navigate your way through new situations, especially as you and your S.O. are still getting acquainted with each other's temperaments.
We asked Kelly Campbell, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino, to explain the top things to consider when communicating with romantic partners. If you've ever wanted to know the secret to staying level-headed in an argument and more, keep reading for expert tips on how to listen and be heard in your relationships.
"Choose your battles wisely, [and] don't sweat the small stuff," says Campbell. "If you complain about everything all the time, then you'll make for a miserable relationship partner and you won't get the important things addressed." If you find that you're becoming increasingly irritated by your partner's habits and annoyances, she suggests that's a sign that "it might be time to work on yourself [and] go to therapy, or the relationship might not be a good fit for you."
Speaking of addressing issues, Campbell explains that it's important to "be mindful of time and place. If there is something contentious to discuss, don't do it before you're headed out for a big event or out in public. Realize that there are a time and place for heated discussions—issues don't have to be addressed right in the moment or in front of other people."
"Sometimes we treat strangers better than we treat those closest to us," Campbell points out. It should go without saying to treat your partner with respect, but it can be all too easy to exhibit how short our fuse is when we feel especially comfortable around someone. "Even when you are frustrated or angry, try to control your emotions and remember that this is the person you've chosen to be with—oftentimes, they are also the parent of your child or children," she says.
If you and your partner have children, remember that how you speak to your S.O. also sets an example for how your kids will treat you—as well as their future romantic partners. "They model the treatment they've witnessed with parents. When partners lose respect for each other, it's a bad sign," Campbell explains.
Effective communication in a relationship also comes down to knowing how to address specific problems without throwing in other complaints or annoyances from the past—a concept known as "kitchen sinking," which is a term coined by renowned clinical psychologist John Gottman, says Campbell. "Stick to the issue at hand, and don't add in a bunch of other complaints."
"Your partner can't mind-read, so don't act like they can," which is why it's saying what you mean and meaning what you say is crucial to achieving effective communication in a relationship. This means avoiding passive-aggressive behaviors such as giving the "silent treatment" in hopes that your partner will eventually figure out what's bothering you.
When communicating, use clear "I" statements that explain exactly how you feel and why. Campbell gives the following as an example: "I feel betrayed because you told your mom something I asked that you keep between us."
Disagreements are often fueled by emotions, which is why it's crucial to "think carefully about your words, especially when you're upset so that you don't say something you'll regret," she says. "Don't use insults. Just speak to the issue at hand."
Yes, relationships—even those that seem successful—require work to remain strong. "Be proactive about being positive," Campbell says. "Happy, committed couples engage in relationship maintenance behaviors. They deliberately do things to show their love, appreciation, and commitment to each other. Rather than coming home in a grouchy mood, try greeting your partner in a pleasant manner and maintain that positivity for the duration of the evening. Positivity rubs off, and working to maintain a positive attitude within the relationship will make a big difference in overall satisfaction."
It's common for most people to slowly reveal personal information—a process called self-disclosure—as the relationship becomes more serious. "Self-disclosure is also important in long-term relationships. Your partner should be your primary confidant—or at least someone you feel comfortable going to when you want to talk about personal things," Campbell says. "You should feel validated, heard, and understood. If you find yourself avoiding disclosures with your romantic partner and turning instead to a family member or friend, it's a bad sign."
Got your own sage advice for communicating effectively in a relationship? Share your experiences in the comments.