Open and vulnerable communication between intimate partners is at the core of
a relationship’s capacity to survive and thrive. It is what builds trust, clears the
way for authenticity, and opens the gates to true intimacy. If relationship partners
do not feel seen, heard, understood, and safe, as they express their innermost
desires and fears, they will never know the joy of blending souls.
Yet, despite the plethora of available guidance, many of the couples I see are still
woefully inept in understanding what the other partner means and feels. Despite
their attempts to learn successful communication skills, they continue to
misunderstand and misinterpret one another.
In practicing relationship therapy for the past four-plus decades, I am continually
called upon to act as a translator. I have to teach each partner how to interpret
what they hear, how to accurately feed it back to the other, and to make sure
that they are heard in return.
Are there behaviors that that are not being taught that could help those
misunderstandings occur less often? What are the missing pieces that would solve
that puzzle? By finding them, can we make what is seems so complicated easier to
practice and master? And can we do it in a simple and manageable way?
Following are the eight behaviors that I teach couples that can immediately and
effectively be game changers. They are simple but crucial for communication to
All relationships are compilations of the past, the present, and the upcoming
future. There is no accurate communication possible if both partners do not
acknowledge all three as they attempt to connect. What happened before always
affects what is happening now and how that will alter or change the future.
That doesn’t mean the license to rehash the past to try to get a different outcome
in the present. But it does mean talking about what precedes the current
communication task and where do both partners want to end up at the end of
sharing something together?
2) Enough Time for Each Partner to Speak
Too soon in many communication processes, one partner begins to overtalk the
other or share more than the other can take in. The attempt at connection
becomes a competition to be heard and neither will be able to listen.
Partners can choose any item that feels meaningful to both of them and only
speak when they are holding that item, and for a mutually agreed-upon period of
time. The person listening must sum up what they have heard and felt before
receiving their turn.
3) Watching for Trauma Triggers
As relationships mature, both partners will experience triggers from each other
that activate past traumas. The closer people get to each other, the more
unresolved or painful experiences from the past will work their way to the
When that happens, the triggered partner will become more unreasonable,
reactive, and defensive, often in a much more dramatic way than the interaction
would seem to have caused. It is crucial that the partner seeing that response
immediately let go of what was being talked about and help the other understand
what they are experiencing.
4) Proximity without Preoccupation
Successful communication cannot occur unless the partners are physically close to
each other and give their full attention to the process at hand. The farther apart
they are physically, the more likely they will begin to see the other as someone
from their past and begin to project unresolved feelings onto them.
If there is to be a true connection, both partners must put all else aside, focus on
only each other, and commit to listening and learning without judgment or
5) Defining Terms
Many well-intentioned communication attempts are sabotaged by a lack of
clarification of what each partner means by the words and phrases they use.
Culture, gender, age, education, relationship history, childhood aphorisms,
meaningful past experiences, can all put a different spin when the background is
not understood by the other.
Before either partner takes offense, feels defensive, or pushes back in any way,
they need to ask the other what the word or phrase means to them, where it
came from, and what they are trying to share when they use it.
6) Reading the Other’s Non-Verbal Cues
In almost all cultures, over ninety percent of intimate communication is not about
words but how they are conveyed. Children immediately know when a parent is
angry or burdened by their facial expression, body language, voice intonation, and
rhythm. The phrase, “Of course I love you,” can communicate irritation, dismissal,
or reassurance depending on those non-verbal cues.
Somehow, many people forget that and rely on finding the right words. Using “I”
statements to express cooperation, for instance, means nothing if the non-verbal
cues are implying blame. It is up to each partner to become more congruent with
what they say and what they actually feel behind the words. Hidden agendas are
less likely to stay hidden when non-verbal cues are understood.
7) Talking “to” Rather than “at” or “about”
There is no faster way to lose a listener that to talk at them, rather than to them
or about them. Successful communicators sense immediately when the other
partner is no longer able to take more in, and acknowledge it.
It may be hard on the ego to realize that what is being said is no longer of
interest, but the alternative is to talk to someone who is not there.
To create a communication process that deepens and becomes richer over time,
both partners must live in the minds and hearts of each other in every phrase
they share. If you slap a child, you should simultaneously feel the slap on your
own face at the same time.
Partners who trust one another know that the other is always tuned in,
monitoring how the other is receiving that communication and including that
awareness in what they say. No one is perfect, and sometimes hurt and anger
block that desire to feel the effect of a behavior on the other, but that absence of
mutual experience must be acknowledged.