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The Eight Most Crucial Behaviors for Successful Communication Between Intimate Partners

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

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

actually work.

1) Weaving

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.

8) Attunement

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.

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