How to Improve Communication Skills in Your Relationship

Everyone who chooses to be in a relationship will experience conflict at some point. There may be mismatched expectations about how often partners spend time together or different ideas of what quality time looks and feels like. Or, maybe the conflict is something more significant, like a difference in values or beliefs, the way one partner’s family drama affects the relationship, or intimacy or financial stressors. No matter what kinds of conflicts emerge, developing and practicing healthy communication skills can help us navigate issues that arise in relationships, and find resolutions that work for each partner.

How to Improve Communication Skills During Conflict

When it comes to communicating about challenging issues, everyone has both strengths and growth opportunities. Some communication skills we learn and practice when we are young through interacting with family and friends, and others are learned over time as we experience new relationships and situations. These all play a role in how we react to, and work through, conflict in our relationships.

Positive Communication Skills to Practice

Effective communication skills can help prevent conflicts, keep them from escalating, and resolve conflicts in a healthy way. Here are some ways to create good communication during a conflict:

  • Choosing the right time to bring up a conflict
  • Being honest in a respectful way
  • Not hiding your feelings
  • Validating your partner’s feelings and perspective
  • Staying on topic in conversation
  • Taking constructive criticism
  • Finding compromise

Negative Communication Habits to Avoid

When we are fighting with a partner, it can sometimes be easy to get defensive or to use  unhealthy coping mechanisms to temporarily feel better. If a relationship has unresolved and persistent conflicts, it’s also common for an argument about one issue to escalate into a conflict about larger, sometimes totally unrelated, issues. Here are some common unhealthy communication patterns to avoid:

  • Bottling up your emotions
  • Brushing your or your partner’s emotions aside
  • Using jokes to cover up feelings
  • Being passive aggressive
  • Becoming overly defensive
  • Bringing up unrelated conflict during an argument about a specific topic
  • Talking over or ignoring your partner’s points
  • Giving your partner the silent treatment after an argument, or to avoid an argument

Tips for Healthy Communication

Once you’ve identified the strengths and areas for improvement in your own communication style, it can be easier to build on those strengths and work on healthy communication together when you are in a relationship.

Understand Your Own Feelings First

It’s not uncommon to react defensively when facing a conflict—but it can be hard to find a constructive solution to a conflict when we have built emotional walls to protect ourselves. Processing how you feel about a hot button issue in the relationship, and understanding what you want out of a situation before you broach it with your partner, can help you better communicate your feelings and reach a resolution you’re both happy with.

If you are the one bringing up an issue, it’s good to do this ahead of time. If your partner has brought an issue to you, it’s okay to let your partner know you need a little time to process your thoughts before talking about it. It can be useful to ask clarifying questions so you are sure you are understanding your partner’s perspective clearly rather than through a defensive lens as you take time to sort through your feelings.

Set a Goal

Part of understanding how you feel about a situation is having a sense of what you want out of a resolution. If you need to have a tough conversation with your partner, it can help to set a clear goal for the conversation. The goal can simply be for both of you to honestly voice your concerns, or it could be for the two of you to reach a compromise or resolution on a tough issue.

When setting a goal, a helpful way of framing the conversation is you and your partner vs. the problem, not you vs. your partner. For example, let’s say you want to talk about the division of chores. Instead of framing it as you vs. your partner—for example, “You’re not doing enough around the house”—try to frame it as you and your partner vs. the problem. For example: “I often feel like I am spending more time doing chores than I want to be and could use help. Can we divide chores differently so that I do not end up feeling resentful?”

Figure Out What Healthy Communication Looks Like for Your Relationship

If the conflicts in your relationship come from a difference in your individual communication styles and needs, you may need to sit down and discuss what ideal communication looks like in your relationship. For example, it can help to have a sense of how often each of you prefer to talk, preferred methods of communication, how you want to handle conflicts, and what you’re each going to do to keep communication in the relationship satisfying and healthy.

For example, let’s say you and your partner have conflicting schedules that make it difficult to find time to talk, but you both want to talk on the phone every night. It can help to talk through the options, such as taking turns adjusting your work or school schedules when possible or agreeing to talk on the phone every other night and communicate via text on other days.

Remember, effective communication doesn’t always have to be verbal. Leave your partner notes or send text messages to let them know you are thinking of them when they are not there.

Be an Active Listener

Communicating is not just about talking. It’s also about listening and understanding your partner’s perspective as deeply as you can. Focus on being fully present when your partner is speaking—limit distractions or interruptions, listen to their stories and the feelings that go along with them, reflect back what you hear, and be empathetic. Celebrate their successes and their happiness, participate as they tell you about their day, and be present when they come to you with an issue.

Set and Maintain Boundaries

An important part of maintaining a healthy relationship is knowing yourself well enough to know how to take time for yourself separate from the relationship, and how to set healthy limits and boundaries to protect and respect your time, energy, emotions, and resources. Clearly communicating what you each need both inside and outside of the relationship makes relationships stronger and more satisfying.

When resolving conflict or making compromises in a relationship, it’s important that compromises are made in a way that respects the needs and perspectives of everyone involved. If you do not feel heard and understood, or if you’re having frequent conflicts about boundaries, it may be time to revisit your relationship needs and expectations using healthy communication skills.

Keep Checking In

Even if you and your partner regularly communicate in ways that you both find satisfying, there is always room for improvement. It can be helpful to check in with your partner regularly and see how they’re feeling. Do they feel supported? Where are the growth opportunities for each of you? Practicing healthy communication is an ongoing process, and checking in with each other can help make the relationship stronger.

When You Are Struggling with Healthy Communication

Advice on healthy communication for resolving relationship conflicts is meant for ideal situations. But sometimes life is messier than that, and it’s important to recognize when a relationship dynamic becomes unhealthy. If you’re struggling to communicate or conflicts in your relationship are persistent or escalating in a way that makes you uncomfortable, it may be time to seek help from a trained couples counselor or consider ending the relationship.

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