Relationships don’t look like they used to (and that’s a good thing). But what does it honestly take to make a modern romance work? As part of Committed, we’re exploring partnerships ranging from a textbook marriage between high-school sweethearts to a gay couple creating a life together in the conservative deep South.
When a couple comes to see me for relationship counseling, most of the time it’s for help with communication, either in general or surrounding a specific event. Asking for help with communication within your relationship doesn’t mean it’s doomed to fail; it means you’re a normal human couple. Of course, my partner and I are both mental health therapists, so we communicate perfectly 100 percent of the time… just kidding. We have our own issues, like every other couple.
In working with couples and in my own relationship, I’ve found that a lot of relationship advice tends to be ineffective and unrealistic. Since we’re all imperfect humans, we’re going to make mistakes, require time to cool down, and need to ask questions of ourselves and our partners in order to grow together. I’ve rounded up some of my favorite communication pointers that can genuinely help you out the next time you find yourself in a misunderstanding with your partner.
1. Go ahead and go to bed angry.
Chances are, you’ve heard someone say “never go to bed angry” when talking about fighting within a relationship. I’m here to tell you that you should absolutely go to bed angry. Arguments at the end of the day are often exacerbated by built-up irritations or small miscommunications. Rather than trying to communicate when you are tired and spent, get a good night’s sleep and tackle it together in the morning. Many times, with a little rest, you’ll find the situation seems more manageable in the light of day.
2. It’s good to let each other get away with stuff.
OK, we shouldn’t encourage one another to become inconsiderate monsters, but we also need to remember that no one is perfect. For example, my partner leaves his shaving stuff on the bathroom sink, and I leave my shoes in the middle of the entryway. We’re both absent-minded at times, and we’re working on that, but it’s not OK for me to fly into a rage at him over his razor, especially since he is kind to me despite tripping over my ballet flats on more than one occasion. A more content and loving partnership is built through gentle reminders and patient understanding, rather than passive-aggressive comments and constant criticism.
3. Don’t hit that send button! Fighting over text is terrible…
Fighting over text message often leads to further miscommunication and misunderstanding. When we text, we can’t fully interpret the messages we receive; the clues that normally help us decode our partner’s true intent (like body language, voice tone, and eye contact) are absent in text messages. So as we attempt to understand these messages—not only the words, but the meaning behind them—our imaginations fill in these blanks. This is why text message disputes can blow out of proportion, leaving both parties baffled by how a small disagreement could end in a huge fight.
4. …but writing out your thoughts before talking is pretty great.
When you take the time to write out your thoughts, especially your responses to topics that you know may get heated during communication, you’re able to process difficult feelings before you discuss them. This gives you the opportunity to approach the subject at hand more calmly, rather than attacking your partner out of anger or hurt. By writing about your feelings, you may also be able to identify exactly what causes you to feel intense negative emotions and why. For example, if your ex used to compare you to other people, that might explain why you become upset when your partner praises another person’s accomplishments. Being able to identify that issue and communicate it to your partner can increase trust and closeness.
5. Express your needs… even if you think you sound “needy.”
When a client says to me, “Lauren, I need something, and my partner isn’t doing it!” I ask, “Have you told your partner what you need?” The response is often a resounding no, followed by, “I don’t want to seem needy,” or “They should know what I want without asking.”
Having needs does not make you needy; it makes you a human. And while I understand that directly asking your partner to, say, massage your shoulders after a long day may not be as romantic as them automatically knowing what to do, your partner isn’t a mind reader. Ask direct questions and make clear requests so that your partner knows exactly what you want and need without the guessing games. There is something incredibly sexy about having your needs met by the person you love… even if you had to give them a little guidance.
6. Don’t cook for your partner.
When I say “don’t cook for your partner,” I mean, “don’t cook for them unless that’s something that’s important to them.” Let’s extend this food analogy: Say you take the day off work to spend a whole day making cookies for your partner. We’re talking about that from-scratch, special-occasion kind of baking. Your partner gets home, the kitchen is a mess, and there’s a smudge of flour across your face. “Look, honey!” you say. “I spent all day making cookies for you!”
Your partner looks puzzled and says, “Thanks, but… I really don’t like cookies. I like pie.” It’s a nightmare scenario. You’ve exhausted your resources, but neither of you have your needs met. Instead, everyone gets a helping of hurt feelings and frustration. How could your partner not appreciate your cookies? How could you not know your partner prefers pie?
I’m here to tell you that you should absolutely go to bed angry.
This is why communicating is so important. A helpful model that I use on a regular basis is called The Five Love Languages, developed by Gary Chapman. The Five Love Languages are five ways to experience and communicate love to a partner, which are: Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts, Physical Touch, Words of Affirmation, and Quality Time. There’s a quiz you can take to discover your love language; most people have a primary and secondary love language.
My love language is Quality Time. I need someone to give me eye contact, to hang out with me without distractions, to go places with me, and to simply spend time together. In a previous relationship, I was with someone who communicated through Acts of Service. Instead of listening when I said I needed time together, he would bring up all the times he did the dishes or took my car to get the oil changed. True, he had made an effort and was helpful in that way, but it wasn’t what I was asking for or what I needed. My needs weren’t being met, he felt his efforts were unappreciated, and we were both frustrated.
Maybe your partner would rather eat takeout than a home-cooked meal, but wants a cheesy Hallmark card. Maybe your partner can wash their own car but needs to spend four uninterrupted hours with you on a Saturday. Or maybe your partner would pass on a bouquet and would rather you go to the grocery store so they don’t have to. Avoid spending time and energy on efforts that won’t fulfill your partner, and instead communicate with one another about specific wants and needs so that the time and energy you do spend is productive and meaningful.
7. Disagree with each other.
So often, disagreements are seen as threats to the stability of the relationship—some couples will avoid a disagreement at all costs, even if it means stuffing their feelings down and being quietly unhappy. Rather than seeing disagreements negatively, issues can be seen as natural, normal, and part of any healthy relationship. Disagreements are an opportunity to communicate, understand, listen to your partner, and grow together. Disagreements can lead to healthier communication patterns and a stronger relationship overall.
One of my favorite communication tools to use in the midst of an argument is called the I-Message—no, not the blue bubbles on your phone screen. In this context, an I-Message is a type of communication that places the focus of the conversation on the feelings of the person speaking, rather than using accusations to communicate their discontent.
The standard formula for an I-Message is as follows: I feel [feeling word] when [talk about scenario that made you feel this way, then talk about the result you would prefer.] For example, “I feel overwhelmed and exhausted when I do the cooking and the cleaning. Is there any way we could work together to get it done?”
If you’ve been the one doing both the laundry and the cooking, and it’s been frustrating you, this format might not be your first thought. You’d probably be more tempted to say, “You never do anything around here!” or even “It would be nice to get some help in the kitchen for once!” But framing the situation like this can make your partner feel attacked, leading them to become defensive. Formatting these feelings of frustration into an I-Message may feel counterintuitive at first, but it does increase the likelihood of a more positive response from your partner, and can help you both grow closer through stronger communication.
While a perfect relationship is impossible, a healthy, fulfilling relationship is something each of us can achieve with a supportive partner and the right communication tools. When two people work to fight fairly, express their needs, and foster understanding, the result is a strong and happy relationship built on trust and open communication.