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Strengthen Communication with Your Partner

By CFI Psychotherapist Victoria De Paula, LMSW

Victoria is currently accepting new couples (updated February 2024)

Communication is one of the foundational aspects of a healthy relationship. Partners often get stuck in unhealthy communication patterns like tit-for-tat when they are treating each other as opponents. Remember that you are in a relationship, not a court of law. What matters is not winning, proving your partner wrong, or making your partner feel as badly as you do, but rather expressing yourself in a way that invites your partner to become your teammate in addressing your needs and feelings. 

When we engage with our partners in a non-critical and open way, we tend to feel safer and more fulfilled in our relationships. This Valentine’s Day, consider how you are communicating with your partner about your needs and feelings in order to strengthen your relationship. 

Concrete Ways to Improve Communication:

1) Separate needs from wants, and always communicate positive needs first. Consider the difference between needs that are must-haves (such as trust and intimacy) from wants that are nice-to-haves (such as going on romantic dates). It is often our instinct to express wants (e.g., “I want you to take me out to dinner more often”), but it is more helpful to express needs, which tend to be more vulnerable and inherently less critical in nature (e.g., “I miss you and I’d like to feel closer to you”). Even better, our partners are generally more receptive to the expression of positive needs, meaning what we want more of rather than less of. When you express a positive need, lead with your feelings and invite your partner to help address the need with you. Be open to negotiating the wants attached to the needs.

    • Example: “I have been missing you lately. I’d love to have more intimacy in our relationship. Could we talk about a way to address this? I was thinking that we could go on weekly dates together, but I’m open to other ideas too.”

2) Be mindful of your goal. If you are finding that your conversations devolve into “kitchen sink” arguments – those that start with one issue and then spiral to encompass numerous complaints – it is likely that you are losing track of your goal and overwhelming your partner. Overwhelmed partners can become defensive or withdraw from the conversation altogether. In order to avoid this trap, take time to figure out what you would like to get out of the conversation with your partner before initiating it. Focus on one issue at a time and avoid getting sidetracked into other subjects. Remember that not every issue needs to be addressed in this moment, or even this day or this week. You are better off having a productive conversation about one issue than an unproductive conversation about five issues.

    • Example: “Could we talk about the kids’ pick-up schedule from school? I’ve been feeling overwhelmed and would like to problem-solve some other solutions.”

3) Express your vulnerable emotions when your partner has hurt you. It is normal to occasionally feel hurt about something your partner has done, especially if the behavior has pushed on attachment triggers such as a fear of being abandoned or not being good enough. At the end of the day, your partner is often the best person to soothe you when you feel these emotions. When we express vulnerable emotions like sadness, fear, or anxiety, we invite our partner to move toward us and soothe us. On the other hand, defensive emotions tend to push our partners away. Try to express vulnerable rather than defensive emotions to your partner when you feel wronged (e.g., sadness rather than anger). Be specific about what you need in the moment to let your partner know how they can make a repair.

    • Example: “It hurt my feelings when you made that joke about my cooking in front of the kids. When I heard it, I felt afraid that you don’t think I’m doing a good job. Can you let me know that you still think highly of me?”

4) Curb defensiveness by considering (and validating!) your partner’s perspective. Conversations can quickly devolve into chaos when one or both partners become defensive. If you feel yourself becoming defensive, take a moment to recognize what is happening and remind yourself that defensiveness keeps both of you from being heard. You can get the conversation back on track by trying to find some empathy for your partner’s feelings. Is there something your partner said that you can agree with and even validate? Showing empathy for your partner and validating their feelings first will better enable them to calm down so that they can hear you, too.

    • Example: “I see myself getting defensive, but when I take a step back, I do recognize that you are right about some things here. The comment I made earlier was mean, and I understand why you are upset.”

5) Take breaks when needed. If all else fails, do not be afraid to take a break. Conversations riddled with criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling are detrimental to the longevity of relationships. If you find yourself falling into these behaviors, it is an indication that you are physiologically flooded, a normal bodily response similar to fight-flight-freeze that happens when we get overwhelmed. When individuals are flooded, conversations are no longer effective. Let your partner know you need a break to calm down, and agree on a designated time to return to the conversation. Use the break to meditate, read, or do anything else to calm your nervous system and take your mind off the argument.

    • Example: “I’m feeling really overwhelmed. I need a break to cool off so that I can engage with you in a better way. Can we take a break and come back in 20 minutes?”

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