By Leah Spellman Berger
From deciding what to say after you match with someone on Bumble to finding the right time to have the “DTR” conversation, we’re often hyper aware of how and what we’re communicating at the onset of a relationship. Yet over time, whether six months or six years, communication challenges arise for many couples. Poor communication habits resurfacing may be to blame, or perhaps it’s because misunderstandings are bound to happen eventually. In those moments, how can you be vulnerable and communicate your feelings and needs? What are some techniques you can use to foster open, healthy communication that builds trust and intimacy instead of resentment and distance? We spoke with experts to find out.
Listen more than you talk
Picture this: You ask a friend or a partner a question, but instead of paying attention to what they’re saying, you focus on what your answer will be or a similar story you have. We’ve all been there. Associate professor Dr. Kristina Scharp, who studies family and interpersonal communication, says this is especially common early in a relationship due to nerves. “Listening is one of the most overlooked and essential aspects of communication,” says Scharp. “When our goal is to understand the other person, we take on a different attitude than if we’re just trying to respond.” And when you’re focusing on what to say next, you miss points of connection.
Therapist Miracle Williams agrees. She says failure to listen is the number one dynamic at play with the couples she sees. “They struggle to slow down, listen, and try to truly understand their partner’s perspective. They also miss out on the opportunity to create a deeper level of intimacy.” When you really listen, your relationship will benefit from the emotional connection you’ll create. And you may even resolve conflicts more easily because you have taken the time to understand your partner’s perspective.
Acknowledge and validate your partner
Once you’re actively listening, the next step to effective communication is to acknowledge your partner and show that you hear what they’re saying. And there’s no one-size-fits-all approach: some people want to see action, and others may want to hear words. “Just because you feel acknowledged in a certain way, doesn’t mean your partner feels acknowledged in that same way,” says Williams. Find out how your partner will feel heard and validated by asking them.
Validation is also critical as it shows your partner acceptance. Author and dating coach Patrick King says that validation is easy in theory, but harder in practice. “It’s asking yourself, ‘If I was them, how would I feel?’” says King. There are many ways to offer validation, like saying, “I hear exactly what you’re saying—you’re angry,” or “I understand what you’re trying to tell me.”
Ask what your partner needs
No matter how well you know your partner, it’s important to ask what they need instead of assuming, because we’re all constantly evolving. “Don’t assume you know what support your partner wants or that they want the same thing they did a week ago,” Scharp says. “Relationships are dynamic, and we often do a bad job of checking in.”
So if your partner is sharing about their bad day at work, don’t jump in offering a solution. After acknowledging and validating their feelings, Williams suggests asking a simple question: “What do you need from me in this moment?” They may want you to ask follow-up questions, let them vent, or show them physical affection. And when you know what they need, you’ll be better able to provide it.
Reflect on the relationship and be honest
Experts agree that while checking in and communicating about your needs or feelings may be uncomfortable at first, being vulnerable is the only way to grow. “Sometimes you don’t want to hear how your partner is unhappy with certain things or how you hurt their feelings,” says Williams. “However, you need to hear it because that provides the opportunity to discuss it or make changes.”
While it might feel strange at first, Williams suggests couples chat about their relationship weekly. You can take a temperature check—or if you’re both feeling understood, reflect on how a conflict could have been handled differently, or discuss how you feel acknowledged and validated so your partner knows for the future.
Like any skill, the only way to improve communication with your partner is to practice. Be aware of the areas you want to work on. Reflect on your communication patterns, triggers, and needs. Most importantly, slow down and really pay attention to what your partner is expressing.