4 ways to better communicate with your partner

Written by:

Winston Lam

Winston Lam

Winston is a psychologist who is passionate about the underlying mechanisms that influence social interactions, human behaviour, and self improvement.


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Gay or straight, every couple fights. A couple that tells me they have never fought before is either in denial, lying, or has yet to have their relationship tested. It is not the presence of conflicts that determine the stability and satisfaction of a long term relationship, but how these conflicts are handled.

I want to highlight 4 communications styles that have been established by research to be so destructive that, if not changed, they can predict a relationship failing: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling.

You might not know how to control yourself from communicating to your partner this way, or even realise that you are doing it. However, with the proper self-awareness and commitment to change, there are tested solutions that you can use to combat these communication patterns, deal with conflict in a much healthier way, and strengthen your relationship.

  1. Be specific with your criticism

Criticism is when you make it sound like the problem you have is with your partner himself, and not his specific behavior. Statements like “You are so selfish!”, and “You never think about me!”, are examples of such. By criticising your partner instead of voicing a specific complaint, you are implying that something is wrong with your partner, with who he is.

It can make him feel hurt and rejected, and his self-esteem goes down. Criticism can easily lead to the other unhealthy communication styles. Instead of using criticism, try being more specific with your complaints, and address specific incidence or behaviors, not the person.

You can also use more “I” statements like “I feel left out when you do this.”. Think about what request or need it is behind the criticism you want to make, and make an “I” statement about it.

2. Don’t get defensive

When you perceive statements or questions from your partner as an attack, and try to defend yourself, you are being defensive. The most common ways people do this include throwing back a counter attack, finding excuses, or playing the victim.

Defensiveness hardly works because you are ultimately just deflecting the blame back onto your partner and the issue does not get addressed. Learn to listen actively first and not get reactive. Clarify if what you heard is really meant as a complaint or attack. Then, accept responsibility, even just for a small part of it. When you do that, you are signaling to your partner that you care about what they are saying.

3. Don’t show contempt

The worst and deadliest communication style of them all. It is when you put yourself on a higher ground, sometimes morally, and when you look down on your partner.

Contemptuous behaviors can be outright mean and disrespectful. And it shows without any words spoken, through sneering, eye-rolling, and mocking. Contempt is also the hardest communication style to fix. It takes long term efforts from both parties to build a culture of appreciation between them.

Couples need to constantly remind themselves to focus on the positive traits of their partner that they fondly hold in warm regard, even when they are fighting.

4. Don’t shut down emotionally

Stonewalling refers to turning away from a conversation. A person can stonewall by shutting down and stop responding, or physically walking away. It usually means that he is overwhelmed emotionally.

While sometimes it is an understandable response, it can convey to your partner that you do not care enough about the issue. Stonewalling is particularly relevant to gay men couples, as research shows that the majority of people who do it are men.

Whenever you find yourself getting too angry or exhausted from the conversation, let your partner know and each of you should take a break and engage in an unrelated activity, preferably something that soothes you. But do not forget about the issue, come back to it once you feel calm enough.

What next?

Now that you are aware of these negative patterns, you might be realising that you yourself do some of these sometimes. And that is a good thing. Awareness is the first step to change, as we psychologists like to say.

It does not mean your relationship is doomed, but it does mean that if you want your relationship to work, you need to put serious work into it, as every relationship does.

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