You’ve probably been told this before: Communication is vital to any relationship, whether platonic, romantic or purely sexual. But what does that even mean? And what does it look like?
I’ve put together a guide on healthy communication to help you better understand, drawing from my personal experience with my husband and in previous relationships. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but hopefully it can help you and your partner work together to resolve any issues you may be having – and continue growing together as a couple.
What is healthy communication?
According to licensed psychotherapist Jude Treder-Wolff, “Communication is the lubricant in the gears of a relationship.” Essentially, if there’s no communication, then the machine that is your relationship starts to grind and inevitably breaks down.
Communication breakdown can be a result of a number of factors, including:
- A deliberate choice from one or both parties
- A lack of skill
- A fear of being vulnerable
There are two types of healthy communication – verbal and nonverbal – and each is just as important as the other. Anyone who has been in a relationship before knows that words are only words until they’re backed up by actions. I’ll never forget the night Steve appeared on my doorstep to tell me he wanted to be with me. That was an example of words and actions in one.
But of course, our partners aren’t mind readers. And if we can’t verbally communicate how we’re feeling or what we need, then actions won’t follow.
It’s not just ‘talking more’ – it’s showing vulnerability
In a previous relationship, I remember saying to my boyfriend at the time that we needed to work on our communication. It was a big step for me to say that, and I can remember feeling my heart pound within my chest.
“We’ve been talking all night, how much more communication do you want?” he replied.
I didn’t know how to answer. I was too young and inexperienced to explain beyond what I’d already expressed. But I can hardly blame him – it’s actually a common misconception. Many couples confuse communication for making conversation, and this is typically the main reason why these same couples are unsuccessful when it comes to solving their relationship troubles.
If I’d had more experience, I would’ve told my boyfriend that I needed him to show more physical affection. It would’ve made me feel even more vulnerable than I was already feeling, but you can’t get to the root of an issue without being honest about your feelings.
You’ve gotta treat an issue like you would a flesh wound. While it may be tempting to slap a band-aid (simply talking more) over the top of any issues you have, if you don’t actually clean out the wound (showing vulnerability), then you could end up with an infection far worse than the disinfectant (communication) would’ve been.
It’s not about ‘winning’ – it’s a judgment-free zone
If you’ve been with your partner for a long time, it can be easy to just assume what your partner is thinking about any given situation. I’ve caught myself doing this with Steve; I’ve even started getting preemptively mad about a scenario I’ve completely imagined.
Rather than make judgments without all the facts, you should share with your partner how you’re feeling about a particular situation. Whether it’s a discussion about the weekly chores or spending time with friends, you should remain calm – and be open to hearing a differing perspective or opinion.
Keep in mind: the end goal isn’t to ‘win’. One aspect of healthy communication that took me a long time to understand was that just because I calmly articulated my opinion didn’t mean he had to agree with me. Neither partner is right or wrong – the goal is to find a solution together, without judgement or anger. And, depending on the discussion, this may not happen overnight.
Health and wellness expert Caleb Backe adds, “If you’re able to respect each other and really hear what the other person is saying, then you’re on the right path.”
It’s about better understanding each other’s feelings
Of course, even if you don’t agree on a particular subject, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t understand each other’s feelings. There’s nothing more frustrating than feeling like your partner simply doesn’t care about how you feel.
That’s why learning to validate each other’s emotions – even if you don’t fully understand or agree with them – is a crucial component of healthy communication.
“The truly ‘good listeners’ of the world do more than just listen – they listen, seek to understand, and validate,” says relationship author Michael Sorensen. “That last step – knowing how and when to validate your partner’s emotions – is what brings deep and lasting connection.”
Why is healthy communication so important?
If you’re not communicating with your partner, you’re not sharing a part of yourself. Instead you’re internalising your feelings, which stops your relationship from changing and growing. Change is inevitable; communication helps you and your partner to grow together, instead of growing apart.
It can also help with the following areas:
Even the best communicators still have misunderstandings and disagreements. But it’s the couples that don’t communicate where they can turn into bigger arguments. Each partner may perceive a situation differently, which can create resentment and lead to hurt feelings. You may not even know why or how it started.
Healthy communication will lead to clarity and greater empathy of one another’s feelings.
When you plainly state your expectations, it’s difficult for them to be disregarded. Your partner can’t say, “I didn’t know messaging another girl was such a big deal to you,” as you had already made yourself clear.
As mentioned above, just because you shared how you feel doesn’t mean your partner has to agree with you. But if you’ve reached a common ground and boundaries have been set, then there should be no question as to what’s considered acceptable in your relationship.
Sex and intimacy
A common problem in long-term relationships is one partner wants sex more than the other. This can lead to feelings of resentment and insecurity – and is typically a result of poor communication.
Opening up a dialogue with your partner can make a huge difference. Perhaps they’ve been feeling stressed about work or looking after the kids and haven’t had the energy. Or perhaps they don’t feel sexy and need something different to reignite the spark between you.
By giving your partner a platform to share, you can both work together on the solution – which should do wonders for your sex life.
How to strike up healthy communication with your partner
When you’re in the middle of an argument, it can be hard to reign in the desire to say things in the heat of the moment. For couples with poor communication, it can be almost cathartic. Often, a bitter fight is the only release either partner is currently getting.
But it’s not healthy. The same fights will continue to happen. The hurt will continue to spread, until there’s only a shell of your relationship left. And at that point, there’s nothing left to fight for.
Good communication is about being deliberate. It’s not about giving in to the heat of the moment, it’s about considering what you say, how you say it – and when you say it.
“We all have different ways of communicating, but the most effective communicators have one thing in common: they don’t react impulsively,” says psychologist Dr. Kara Fasone. “Rather, they take time to plan what they’ll say, how they’ll say it, and when. This brief planning can mean the difference between miscommunication and a well-delivered message.”
If it’s your partner who is struggling to open up, you should discuss this with them. It’s important to be comforting and sincere when you say you’re open to discussing any issues, thoughts or feelings. It’s also important to be patient. I know from personal experience, the first time I tried to share how I was feeling with my first boyfriend, I had to lie in our bedroom in the dark, and it still took me a good fifteen minutes to finally get the words out.
Steve and I also shared a similar moment only a few months ago, and being on the other side of the communication fence was difficult. I wanted him to hurry up and get it out, but I remembered how hard it had been for me to do the same and tried my best to be comforting and supportive.
But what’s just as crucial is your reaction when they finally do open up. Don’t belittle them or get defensive, or you’ll quickly make them regret opening up to you. Follow Dr Fasone’s advice, and take a moment. Think about what they’ve said, and be considerate of their feelings when you respond.
Recognising when it’s time to move on
While healthy communication is invaluable for a healthy relationship, it’s also a valuable tool to recognise when a relationship is no longer working.
Communication is not the solution by itself. It’s simply the vessel in which you can support a healthy relationship. You still need to be able to set boundaries and expectations that you both agree upon, and adhere to those expectations.
When couples stop sharing their wants and needs, it’s likely they may have already given up. The same can be said if only one partner is making the effort to try and communicate. While you can be understanding at their initial reluctance, it will quickly become apparent if they lack the motivation to work on resolving issues.
In these cases, the only words left to communicate are, “It’s time to break up”.
Getting support from a professional
One question I always ask a friend when they’re considering breaking up with their partner is this: Who is the one person you want to share your news with?
And I don’t mean the life-changing news you’d always tell them. I mean, did you witness a bizarre fight when doing the food shopping at Woolies that you thought was funny? Did you see a cute kitten on your walk home? If it’s your partner you want to tell first, then it’s likely you still have something special.
Only last week, Steve and I started bickering over something really minor. I shared the argument with my colleagues at work. One of them asked whether we’d “be okay”. While I appreciated her concern, I also found it hilarious – and immediately wanted to tell Steve about it.
See my point?
If this sounds like you, but the communication doesn’t seem to be helping, it may be worth getting support from a professional. Sometimes all it takes is a little accountability and guidance to adopt better habits. After all, how much easier is it to keep fit at the gym with a personal trainer? A trained psychologist can do the same for you and your communication with your partner.
Thanks for reading – and please share in the comments if you’ve got any other tips or tricks for healthy communication. How do you and your partner resolve disagreements?