8 Communication Skills Essential for Relationships
Communication in a romantic relationship is the foundation. No intimacy can exist without it and no love may be engendered, unless two individuals can speak and listen to one another, and feel at ease doing so. Many couples resort to negative communication techniques so as to control or manipulate their partner. Most of the time this is done defensively, as that person is feeling victimized and wants to alter the behavior of their partner so as to no longer feel victimized, moving forward. Below is a list (with description) of the skills couples use. Some of them should be avoided, but we also have to understand how to react if this skill is used against us. It makes little sense to focus only on giving positivity, with the assumption that our partner or others will do the same. Some are do’s; others are don’ts. The essential part of the don’t is to not only avoid the behavior, but to also receive it without an elicitation of our own negative emotions.
Criticism – This is attacking the character or actions of one’s partner. Often, this will look like:
“You never do this.”
“Why don’t you ever help out around the house.”
Most of the time, criticism will include absolute terms (e.g., always or never). Not only is the criticizer attacking the other individual, they are extrapolating a single incident into the future. It is taking one action and insinuating that it is a character or personality trait, rather than an isolated incident. When a partner uses criticism, they are using language that is practically impossible to respond to. How exactly do we respond to an allegation that is not true? The examples, shown above, are not meant to be answered or replied to. The criticizer wants to be yielded to.
Contempt – Disregarding a person’s value and worth, and removing it from consideration; it is the opposite of respect. Instead of displaying value of the other individual, we fail to see it and hold this person accountable to this false image of worthlessness. The person that is in contempt will feel as if they are not good enough for their partner. Even if they meet their partner’s expectations, they are not redeemed and are certainly not rewarded.
Defensiveness – Being defensive is often similar to making excuses or explanations. Understand that the former and latter are giving indications as to why the individual did or is doing some particular behavior. In this stance, both individuals are actively participating on the battlefield, as both are in an escalatory mindset, so as to have their attacker back down. Defensive individuals don’t take responsibility for their actions and true apologies and forgiveness are hard to come by. This may look like:
“I only did it because you did ____.”
Stonewalling – Walking away from an argument or conversation and refusing to speak. This is a very destructive method of communication, and it is used to give emotional poison. The one stonewalling is in the retributive mindset, seeking to punish the offender. There are healthy ways to back down from an unhealthy conversation; stonewalling is not one of them. We can always inform our partner that we need a moment to calm down. This is a very healthy choice, so long as the partners actually re-engage (healthily), in time. If you just walk away from an argument without saying anything, you are stonewalling. If this has already taken place, then retroactively indicate to your partner that you need a moment, but can speak later. Your partner does not have to agree with your decision to take this moment, but giving them the respect by informing them as to what you are doing is vital. If you are a “victim” of stonewalling, then don’t let it get to you. The reception of their emotional poison is what validates their behavior. Do this:
- Allow them 100% freedom to refuse to speak.
- Send invitations, periodically (e.g., “would you like to have dinner,” or “would you like to talk.”).
Calm Down – Let’s say there are 3 brains: emotional, prideful, and logical. When an argument erupts, which one is removed from the equation? The logical mind. In my book, The Fire of Knowledge, I show that there are 3 levels of emotion (beyond zero). As we become more upset and stressed, the logical mind is further “crowded out”. The result of this is an argument between two animals, not lovers. You aren’t yourself when you are upset, so why would you assume your partner is? In an argument, a couple is no longer speaking to the authentic self. Do the above technique as a healthy alternative to stonewalling and also do:
- See the best in your partner.
- Take responsibility for your emotions and actions.
- Give periodic bits of communication to your partner.
Complain – This skill is actually a do and a don’t. How to complain is an art, and usually an uncomfortable one. Usually, a partner will complain only when emotions flare up. Go back to the previous skill and remind yourself why this is a silly endeavor. Complaining is usually done in the defensive mindset, which only means partners are battling, and not addressing the underlying issue. The issue that was complained about will not be resolved. Do this:
- Bring up complaints when your partner is not in an elevated emotional state.
- Make the complaint in a constructive manner (e.g., “I really enjoy when we go on dates. Can we go out more? It means a lot to me.”).
- Respect and accept that the recipient may get defensive. Resist the urge to step onto the battlefield.
Speak Non-Defensively – To speak non-defensively requires responsibility of one’s emotions and actions. To do this, we have to give constructive advice or make requests in a constructive manner. Speaking defensively is destructive, whereas we are trying to build, that is, to actually get a desirable result.
Consider the difference:
- Defensive: “We never have sex, because you never give romance.”
- Non-Defensive: “We do not have sex as often, because we aren’t romantic like we used to be. We should work on developing more intimacy.”
Validate – Validation is part of recognizing a partner’s communicative effort. Understand that a partner needs to be validated when they are speaking. If we don’t do this, then intimacy is foundationally destroyed. The easiest way to validate your partner is to square your shoulders with theirs, make eye contact, ask them to elaborate, and give your own input. Your focus should be entirely on them.
Gottman, J.M. (1994). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside.