Couple Communication Tips

Nathan Cobb

by Nathan Cobb, Ph.D.

Couples often find it challenging to handle disagreements under stress. Here are some couple communication tips for getting over those tough hurdles during stressful times.

Tip #1: Start with yourself. The best place to begin is by accepting full responsibility for your own role in the problem. Acknowledge your own mistakes and take responsibility for them.

One question you could ask yourself is, "What am I doing that makes this situation worse?" Instead of analyzing your spouse’s faults, recognize how your own behavior perpetuates the problem and is part of a larger cycle between you and your spouse. Resolve to change the only thing you can change: your part in the cycle.

Tip #2: Pause. Give yourself time to stop and think about what you are saying. Buy some time to work through your emotions so that you can think rationally about what the issues are for you.

A time-out can be very helpful when you are feeling too upset to think straight. Acknowledge that you need a break. Let the other person know that you need some time to think and assure your spouse that you will come back.

While you are gone, try not to focus on thoughts of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood. Instead, ask yourself: What is the real issue for me? What am I feeling underneath this anger? What do I want? How can I look at this from my partner's point of view? What does my partner want? How am I contributing to the problem? What can I do to make it right? How can I express myself more clearly?

Then return to your spouse with a conscious intention to own your part in the problem and talk about it calmly with an open mind and a softer heart.

Tip #3: Assume goodwill—don't condemn each other.

We are all capable of intentionally saying or doing mean-spirited things to hurt the ones we love, especially in the heat of battle when one or both spouses are feeling flooded and overwhelmed.

But when people are just going about their lives, the initial reasons for conflict are rarely rooted in negative intentions. Most people are usually motivated by positive intentions even if the outcome may be negative for others around them.

Many garden-variety conflicts in marriage involve misunderstandings or conflicting goals rather than intentional transgressions against each other. In such cases, acknowledge your hurt and communicate that hurt to your spouse, but try not to approach your spouse as though he or she committed a crime against you, especially where there was no clear negative intent.

Assume, for example, that your spouse was doing his or her best to overcome a difficult situation rather than trying to make life hard for you on purpose. Remember to look for the goodness in your spouse, rather than vilifying him or her.

Try to make a conscious decision to assume that he or she has goodwill toward you overall, and does not intentionally seek ways to hurt you. It is much more likely that your spouse is motivated by positive intentions or goals than by the desire to make life miserable for you or to annoy you on purpose. This is not to excuse anyone for doing things that are harmful to the relationship. This is about tempering our thoughts and feelings ahead of time so that we are more likely to approach the issue with our spouse in a positive way rather than a negative way.

Tip #4: Let go of being right. You might be convinced that your perspective is the correct one. You may feel frustrated that your spouse disagrees with you. Or maybe your spouse has feelings that are hard for you to understand. In these trying situations you may be sending the message, intentionally or unintentionally, "Things would be so much better if only you would admit that you are wrong and I am right."

It's okay to feel that you are right. But try to open your mind to see how your spouse also has a valid point. Open space for your spouse's ideas, needs and feelings to be valid or legitimate.

According to Chilean biologist, Humberto Maturana (1), this is the essence of love: creating room for someone else's needs and feelings to co-exist alongside your own without insisting that they are wrong and have to change.

Often couples become stuck in gridlock because they value being right more than being a couple, or more than being respectful. This is not easy at times, but search for ways to accept and make room for each others’ feelings and perspectives. As one client once told me, “It's a lonely world being right.”

A related idea is not to reject everything your spouse says because of the manner it is presented or because you don’t agree with some PART of what your partner said. Don’t confuse the packaging with the message. Focus on the underlying message. If you aren’t sure what the underlying message is, ask. Clarify things before making assumptions or jumping to conclusions.

Tip #5: Really listen. Harsh, escalating confrontations can usually be prevented by truly listening to each other and seeking to understand the other person's feelings, thoughts, needs, wants, desires and intent rather than demanding to be understood or making assumptions or interpretations about the other person’s “true” motives.

Many of us think we are listening, when really we are listening to ourselves. That is, we're thinking about what to say next or how to counter the other person's arguments.

As difficult as this sounds, work at setting aside your own story or perspective for a while. You can come back to it. Let go of the need to be defensive and just listen. Listen to what your spouse is saying not just what you are hearing. Listen for underlying feelings and needs.

Remember, how your partner feels is about your partner, not about you. Remind yourself that you won’t be diminished if you sincerely listen (in fact just the opposite usually happens). Clarify things before making assumptions or jumping to conclusions. Offer a summary of what you’ve heard.

Resist the impulse to evaluate or analyze the “truth factor” in what your spouse is saying. Emotions like hurt, sadness or loneliness are neither right nor wrong. They just are. You don’t have to defend yourself against them or stamp them out or change them. Just understanding them is an important first step in its own right. Sometimes understanding is all that is really needed.

Tip #6: Speak simply, directly and from the heart. When you raise an issue or a complaint, try to do so in an attitude of friendship and caring. Speak in a direct, clear way about your own needs and perceptions, not about what is wrong with your partner so that your partner can hear you without feeling the need to be defensive. Attack the problem not the person. Don’t go on and on. Keep it short. Give your partner space to acknowledge what you are saying. Make clear requests instead of demands or accusations.

Tip #7: Get underneath the anger. Use words that describe the soft emotions you feel, such as hurt, underneath the hard emotions you feel, such as anger.

It seems safer and easier to get angry than it does to reveal how lonely you are or how hurt you feel, but getting angry also dupes your partner into not realizing you feel hurt or lonely and usually breeds more anger in turn. Your spouse may come to see you as an angry, hostile powder keg to be avoided instead of seeing your underlying needs for understanding, support, inclusion, honesty, and so forth.

Revealing the underlying issues beneath the anger often diffuses conflict and bitterness and invites softness in turn from your partner. Remember the words of Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turneth away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger.” It helps if you can discipline yourself to stand apart from the situation so that you can reflect on what is happening and how you really feel instead of being reactive.

Tip #8: Reward effort. Small changes can lead to larger changes, especially if you see them, notice them and focus on them. Pay attention to small changes and acknowledge them. Seeing change creates hope. Hope invites motivation. Motivation leads to more change.

Tip #9: Always show an increase in love. This means that when you raise an issue that concerns you, it is essential that you express words of reassurance, appreciation, or affirmation for your spouse in the same breath and that you end on a note that emphasizes your respect and love for him or her.It is much easier to accept influence from someone when you feel that that person cares about you and sees the good in you.

Remember to do the little things every day that demonstrate your commitment to and appreciation for your spouse, particularly if you have had a disagreement. It is much easier to give each other the benefit of the doubt, assume goodwill, and disregard the negative things that happen in the relationship when the evidences of commitment, appreciation and love outweigh the negative.

Communicating well under difficult circumstances is hard work but the reward in terms of a stronger relationship is well worth the effort.

1 Maturana, H.R., & Varela, F.J. (1998). The tree of knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding. (Revised ed.). Boston, MA: Shambhala.

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