Healthy communication is the foundation of any successful relationship, but that doesn’t mean this skill comes easy to most couples. Many people struggle to articulate their needs and validate their partners appropriately.
Instead, they often fall into an auto-pilot cycle and do what they’ve always done. Over time, problematic communication can cause serious problems. It may lead to dissatisfaction, boredom, resentment, and infidelity.
In their research, Justin Lavner, Benjamin Karney, & Thomas Bradbury demonstrated that satisfied couples typically communicate more positively and effectively than unsatisfied couples. Similarly, during the newlywed stage, healthy communication can foreshadow greater relationship satisfaction in later years.
In this article, we will talk about some communication exercises for couples recommended by therapists that should help you improve communication with your partner. But to improve our communication with our spouse, we should first discuss what we are doing wrong.
What Are Some Ineffective Communication Habits?
Before learning healthy communication exercises, it’s crucial to recognize ineffective habits that may impact your relationship.
Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist, author, and expert researcher on healthy relationships, indicates that the four horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) help him predict whether couples will divorce with nearly a 94% accuracy.
If you identify yourself (or your partner) in any of these traits, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed! It just means you need to be more aware of your patterns and how they can affect your relational satisfaction.
Criticism refers to stating your partner’s actual or perceived flaws. While some criticism may hold a grain of truth, the tone is malicious, and the words can feel conniving and mean.
Example: You never listen to me. You only focus on yourself.
It’s no secret that criticism tends to make people feel attacked. As a result, they often become defensive and angry.
Contempt happens when one person believes they are more competent or superior than someone else. Gottman states that it’s the most significant predictor of divorce.
Example: You’re so dumb. Nobody else would put up with you the way I do.
Contempt can go in two directions. Chronic contempt can chip away at someone’s self-esteem, and the individual may feel “beaten down” by their bully. Or, they might try to “match” the bullying and become just as combative themselves. Neither of these outcomes boosts healthy communication.
Defensiveness happens when you aim to protect yourself by inadvertently attacking someone else. It’s a coping strategy rooted in self-preservation.
Example: It’s not my fault we’re having money problems. You’re always spending our money!
Defensiveness often leads to more defensiveness. The other person wants to defend their choices because you’re defending yours. In some cases, it can also lead to them withdrawing altogether. They know you aren’t receptive to feedback, so they avoid being honest with you.
Stonewalling happens when one person shuts down from the conversation altogether. This withdrawal occurs because they feel emotionally overwhelmed. They become unresponsive and may be passive-aggressive with statements like nothing is wrong, when it’s clear that something is very wrong!
Stonewalling can be incredibly frustrating for the person aiming to connect. Instead of feeling like the conversation is mutual and collaborative, they feel shut out.
I’m okay with whatever you want to do!
I just want to make sure that everyone else is happy.
I really don’t have much of an opinion on that.
Passive communicators downplay or deny their own needs to please others. In some cases, this sacrifice is beneficial for keeping peace of mind. But if that is a consistent style, they might feel resentful or hostile towards their partner. They might also feel angry with themselves.
Passive communication often stems from low self-esteem, but it can also come from a history of trauma, abuse, or cultural expectations around control and power.
I’m fine. Everything is fine.
I’m not upset with you. Why would you think that?
Are you going to wear THAT shirt today?
Passive-aggressive communication happens when someone expresses their negative feelings or thoughts indirectly. Rather than stating the truth, they attempt to conceal it by making excuses. At the same time, the passive-aggressive communicator wants their partner to read between the lines. In other words, they want them to understand they are hurt or angry- without needing to say it explicitly.
Arguing Over Who’s Right
Think about it. What happens when you win an argument? You might feel victorious (at least briefly), but then what? Is your relationship better? Does your partner change? Are you happier? Maybe not.
When couples fight about who’s right, they often find themselves in an endless cycle that gets nowhere. Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. psychotherapist and author, states, “it’s not about who’s right, but what solves the problem.”
For example, let’s say you’re arguing about paint colors. You want to paint the room white, and your partner wants to paint it green. How do you come to a reasonable conclusion?
Focus on what solves the problem. Does one person care about the paint more than the other? If one partner compromises on the paint to satisfy the other, will they get what they want elsewhere? Or should they consider a different color altogether?
Try to look at problems before you, rather than between you. Consider yourself a team tackling an issue together. This will make you both feel like you’re on the same page, even if you don’t inherently see things eye-to-eye.
4 Ways How Couples Can Improve Their Communication
Rest assured that communication isn’t just a natural talent for most couples. You aren’t necessarily born knowing how to talk, connect, and listen!
In many cases, bettering your communication is an intentional choice. You can learn the necessary skills and make a genuine effort to practice them. Let’s get into some helpful tips to lay the initial foundation. Here are 4 communication exercises for couples to improve their communication.
#1 Reflect On Your Conflict Style
According to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), people generally fit into five types of conflict reactions: accommodating, avoiding, collaborating, competing, and compromising.
You tend to set aside your needs to focus on others. In a relationship, this style means you might work hard to keep the peace. If your partner is angry or passionate about something, you tend to give them what they want.
You withdraw and avoid conflict. It may scare you. Even if you know something is wrong, you don’t speak about it until your partner does.
You aim to be assertive of your needs while being mindful of the needs of others. In a relationship, you know your worth, but you also want to respect your partner’s preferences and concerns.
You tend to be rigid over what you think is right. You may be very opinionated and consider compromise as a form of losing yourself. As a result, you may come across as overbearing or controlling.
You try to find the middle ground in your relationships. You want everyone satisfied and often act as the mediator during conflicts.
Knowing your conflict style can help you recognize your strengths and weaknesses. Conflict is an unavoidable part of life. Understanding how you react to it can help you identify areas where you want to grow.
#2 Plan Difficult Conversation in Advance
Do you say exactly what’s on your mind when the thought arises? It might be worth changing your tune, particularly regarding more complex issues.
Rabbi Schlomo Slatkin, licensed professional clinical counselor and certified Imago relationship therapist, recommends, “Make an appointment if you want to talk about anything significant or that you are concerned might be a sensitive topic.
Ask if it is a good time to talk. If not, try to schedule a time within 24 hours for the conversation. This will help you avoid most fights, as you won’t be caught off guard and react instinctively in a defensive posture.”
Of course, your partner may insist that you tell them what’s on your mind. After all, most of us don’t do well with suspense, especially if we think the bad news is on the way!
Prepare yourself for this possibility and consider how you want to react. Are you willing to practice more objectivity? Are you in a headspace where you can listen to them? Are you receptive to feedback? If you answer no to these questions, tell your partner you need more time.
#3 Learn Your Partner’s Love Language
Dr. Gary Chapman, Ph.D. and the founder of the 5 Love Languages argues that understanding your partner’s love language can help you connect more intimately and meaningfully.
His work assumes that we naturally prioritize certain bids for connection. For example, if your partner’s love language is physical touch, they probably feel most connected when holding your hand, hugging you, or having sex.
On the other hand, if they value acts of service, they might feel most loved when you complete tasks around the home or complete the grocery shopping.
It’s worth exploring both you and your partner’s love languages. Completing this activity can help you develop a greater awareness of what makes the other person feel appreciated.
#4 Understand The Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic
Ingrid Camacho, MHC, recommends that partners identify the pursuer and distancer in each relationship. The pursuer tends to want to resolve conflict right away. The distance often desires space and a sense of safety before seeking a resolution. While this generalization doesn’t apply to all couples, many partners find themselves in this confusing dynamic.
Camacho recommends a few valuable strategies for pursuers and distancers to practice:
- Talk about how much time to work through the argument as individuals before coming together as a couple: While one partner might want to talk right away, the other partner might want to wait a few hours. Decide as a couple how long you feel is right to wait before talking, and then practice sticking to that time! For example, if you decide to wait an hour before talking it out, set a timer, and come together and begin when it goes off.
- Use safe words: If the way your partner is communicating with you hurts you or offends use, say “ouch” to signal to them that they’ve said something that negatively impacted you. If you hear your partner say “ouch,” pause and allow them the space to explain their feelings. Use this as an opportunity to apologize and learn more about your partner. Of course, you can get creative and make up your own safe words that are unique to your relationship!
- Practice getting to the point: Sometimes, we dance around the point we try to make. Practice being direct in your conversation – connect your own perspective of what happened with how it made you feel early on in the conversation. Give your partner time to process and respond. This way, the pair of you spend less time dancing and more time resolving.
- Get intimate: Yes, sex AND other forms of physical touch are important. After intense discussions, connect for 60 seconds using physical touch. You can hug, hold hands, lean on each other, or even sit closely together. Try not to fill this time with talking. Just focus on matching each other’s breath and spirit to reconnect.
4 Ways You Can Practice Communication Skills in a Relationship
Learning communication skills is one thing. Putting them into practice requires effort, time, and willingness.
Remember that perfection isn’t the goal when it comes to powerful communication. You both are on a journey, and it’s essential to be patient with one another. Additionally, you may need to mix, match, and practice several different skills before finding the ones that work best for you.
Let’s have a look at the following communication exercises for couples that let you practice to improve your communication skills.
#1 Practice Zero Negativity
How often do you criticize your partner? Spend a week and pay attention to every nag, complaint, or criticism.
Dr. Harville Hendrix and his wife, Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt, the co-creators of Imago Relationship Therapy, preach the benefits of embracing a zero-negativity approach. They argue that criticism, even when it’s labeled as destructive, represents a form of self-abuse. The traits we dislike in our partners often embody unwanted truths we have about ourselves.
Instead of criticizing, they recommend exploring why a specific issue might irritate you. For example, maybe your partner wanting more independence bothers you because it activates your fears about abandonment.
#2 Practice Structured Conversation
It’s easy to become overwhelmed and reactive when having a challenging conversation. Unfortunately, you might find yourself sidetracked if this happens.
Amanda Levinson, LMHC, LPC, CBBT, recommends that couples structure their difficult talks. “Start by picking a topic and discussing it in a planned way. Do not interrupt each other, and stick to one topic until all points are covered. Try writing down these points so they are not forgotten.”
You may want to consider having a code word to use if interruptions occur. Use this codeword as a way to regroup and return to the main conversation.
#3 Ask the 36 Questions
Dr. Arthur Aron famously conducted a study where he boosted intimacy in a laboratory setting between two strangers. He asked the pair a series of questions followed by intense eye contact. Six months later, the couple married.
Consider spending an evening asking one another the famous 36 questions. Each question is designed to increase interest, boost understanding, and build greater rapport. Even if you’ve been together for many years, you might be surprised by some of your partner’s answers!
#4 Comfort Vs. Solution
Consider this scenario: you come home and tell your spouse that you had a terrible day at work. You lament about your awful boss and never-ending responsibilities. Then, you start talking about your fantasies of quitting and starting your own business. Your spouse responds by asking if you plan to put in a two-week notice and if you’re willing to cut down on expenses while launching your business. You feel annoyed. You don’t actually want to quit right now! Your spouse feels confused. Don’t you want a solution to this problem?
Sometimes we vent because we want advice. But we often want validation and reassurance that we aren’t alone.
Gregory Canillas, Ph.D., President & CEO of Soul 2 Soul Global, teaches couples to ask each other, “Would you like comfort or a solution?” He states this question “zeroes in on what is needed at that moment.”
The next time your partner starts sharing a concern with you, pause and ask them what they need. If they say they don’t know, focusing on comfort is often better. Jumping too quickly into a solution can come across as abrasive and dismissive.
4 Ways To Communicate With a Difficult Partner
It can be frustrating to practice healthy communication if your partner seems resistant to these changes. How do you communicate with a difficult partner? Here are some communication exercises for couples when there is a difficult partner.
#1 Be Mindful of Their Background and Personality
According to Dr. Christie Kederian, LMFT, professional matchmaker, and relationship coach, it’s imperative to understand your partner’s background when considering your relationship.
She notes that many people do not have healthy communication patterns modeled to them during childhood. As a result, they may fall into the same habits as their caregivers, even if these habits are harmful.
Of course, awareness doesn’t excuse toxic behavior. However, it’s important to have compassion and understanding of your partner’s strengths and weaknesses.
If they don’t understand the benefits of healthy communication (because nobody taught it to them), they may present as defensive when you suggest making a change.
Dr. Kederian also recommends that you remain mindful of the learning curve, stating, “you have to have the same patience you would with a kid who’s learning how to ride a bike.”
#2 Stop Arguing When You Feel Escalated
Katie Ziskind, LMFT and yoga therapist, states, “If you notice yourself with an escalated heart rate and your alarms go off in your mind that you might be getting mad, try to self-soothe. It won’t help to talk when mad or triggered.”
She recommends taking a cooldown approach if the conflict becomes heated. You can practice this technique with your partner by:
- Telling your partner, “I need to take a moment,” and physically removing yourself from the room.
- Taking a brisk walk or taking several deep breaths.
- Agreeing with your partner to revisit the conversation at a later time.
Dr. Kederian teaches couples to practice the “red zone exit.” Like Ziskind, she recommends that couples take some time (maybe even a day) to cool off and then come back and converse. She says, “We often feel this anxiety and need to “resolve” things.
But most of the time, couples fight about the same things years into the relationship they fought about in the very beginning. IT’s okay to take time and process and for not everything to be perfect right away.”
Remember that arguing back and forth rarely accomplishes successful connections. If you’re focused on winning, you’re missing the point!
#3 Consider Couples Therapy
Many couples benefit from professional support when it comes to navigating healthy communication. Therapy can help couples learn how to:
- Identify core issues that continue to trigger distress and hatred.
- Set healthy boundaries.
- Restore trust and intimacy.
- Practice new ways of connecting.
- Create long-term and short-term goals within the relationship.
When looking for a clinician, make sure to find a professional who specializes in working with couples. You may need to meet with a few different therapists before finding the right match.
Keep in mind that some therapists also recommend you to consider individual treatment during this time.
#4 Reassess The Relationship
Despite the occasional setback, intimate relationships should inspire you. They should help you feel safe, supported, and uplifted. If you keep putting forth effort and aren’t receiving anything in return, that’s a concern. You may need to reevaluate your priorities.
Are you truly happy? Do you feel like your needs are being met and respected? Are you continuing to grow and learn from your partner? If you can’t answer yes to these questions, it’s time for reflection.
4 Easy Communication Exercises for Couples
Most people know about the benefits of date night. But communication skills extend beyond those special moments you spend together. You can learn to integrate new techniques into your everyday schedule.
Here are some practical communication exercises to start trying.
The high-low exercise is fast and straightforward. All you need to do is commit to a specific time each day to check-in with one another about your day. The ‘high’ refers to the best part of the day, and the ‘low’ refers to the worst.
#2 Practice Mirroring
Mirroring is a specific technique that incorporates active listening into your conversation. Active listening is a form of mindfulness. You are attuning to the present moment.
Believe it or not, this skill isn’t so simple! We often become distracted with our partners because we focus on what we want to say next.
Dr. Carla Marie Manly, clinical psychologist, recommends the following tips for successful mirroring:
- Make positive eye contact. Look at the other person with a warm, understanding gaze.
- Make listening your singular goal. Forget the idea of multitasking. Listening—truly being present—can only happen when listening is the singular goal.
- Strive to hear the other person with an open heart rather than a judgmental mind.
- Reflect what the person says (this is called “mirroring” or “reflective listening”). For example, you might say, “I hear that you are struggling so much at work right now. It sounds as if your boss is really being hard on you.” This key strategy keeps judgment and “fixing” at bay.
- Following the above tip, strive not to “fix” or “find solutions” unless specifically asked. Listen and allow the person to wind their way through their thoughts with your kind ear as the “solution.”
#3 Embrace The Oreo Approach
Before identifying a specific issue, it’s crucial to consider how you want to present your concern. Nobody likes to feel insulted or attacked. If you present a massive list of complaints, your partner might either tune you out entirely or react defensively.
Dr. Fran Walfish, Psy.D, author, and parenting expert, recommends layering any complaints between two positive statements.
For example, if you feel frustrated with your partner’s spending habits, you might say, “I love how fashionable you dress and how beautiful you always look. I’m just concerned about how these clothes purchases affect our budget. I know you care about our finances, so I hope we can discuss this topic.”
Walfish also recommends that married couples use humor. She states, “Laughing can diffuse the intensity of an argument, keep perspective, and help lighten up the moment.”
Of course, be mindful of sarcasm or relying on humor to deflect tension. There’s a time and place to crack funny jokes, and you should never use humor as an excuse to be mean to your partner.
#4 Express Gratitude Each Day
Commit to telling each other why you appreciate one another. You can start with the script: Today, I am grateful for you because…
Don’t overlook the benefits of sharing your gratitude by:
- Doing a task that you know they hate doing (without expecting anything in return).
- Write them a love letter expressing your appreciation for them.
- Bragging about them in front of other people.
- Getting them a special gift on a random day.
- Sending a text or calling them just to let them know how much you love them.