Good communication in a relationship is assertive and respectful. However, there are many common barriers to good communication. Once you identify the barriers to good communication in your relationship, you can work to overcome them. With practice, you and your partner can practice using good communication skills to feel closer and manage disagreements better.
What Isn’t Good Communication
Sometimes, as humans, it’s helpful to identify the barriers we have to our goals. For example, if you want to run a marathon but get sucked into binge watching your favorite show, it’s helpful to plan around this. You may want to run while you watch Netflix as an example.
When you want to communicate well with your partner, it’s helpful to identify any ineffective ways you may be communicating first.
Sometimes, there is aggressive communication in a relationship. Aggressive communication is as the name suggests mean or unkind. This may include yelling, name calling, mocking, or being highly critical. Defensive communication is also aggressive. At times, we may be the aggressive ones. Other times your partner may be aggressive. Or for some couples, you both may have a tendency to become heated which leads to frequent arguments.
Avoiding the 4 Horsemen
John Gottman has done decades of research on good communication in a relationship. From this research, he identified 4 ways of communicating that most strongly lead to break-ups and divorce. These hurtful ways of communicating he labeled the 4 horsemen and most of these ways of communicating are aggressive including defensiveness, criticism, and contempt of your partner. The fourth horsemen is stonewalling which is passive-aggressive. This is when a partner completely shuts down and refuses to talk to the other one.
Don’t Ever Communicate This Way
Contempt is when one partner acts superior to the other. Forms of contempt include name calling and mocking. While all people may communicate ineffectively at times, Gottman’s research revealed that in happy, healthy relationships there are no incidents of contempt. This is the behavior which most strongly makes relationships dissolve. Although some satisfied couples do report having loud arguments.
Good Communication is Assertive
Assertive communication is good communication in a relationship. This is when you are clear about your needs and boundaries yet you communicate these with respect and kindness. Assertive communication involves boundary setting which is when you identify your needs as well as the consequences of the other person violating this in the future. For example, growing up your parents may have set the boundary you must complete your homework before going out with friends. The consequence in this scenario was positive – going out with your friends.
Good Communication in a Relationship Tip #1: You Must Focus on Yourself
When we struggle with communication in a relationship, there’s a natural tendency to focus on what your partner may be doing wrong. Alternatively, you may also focus on trying to keep your partner calm if they become aggressive. Yet this isn’t your job.
It’s your responsibility to figure out how to be an assertive communicator. This means figuring out what you need from your partner while expressing this kindly. DEAR MAN is a skill from Dialectical Behavior Therapy which provides an actual script as to what to say assertively. You may practice journaling what you need to say in advance.
Good Communication in a Relationship Tip #2: You Must Take Breaks
When your partner and you struggle to communicate it’s natural to become stressed. You may enter fight-flight-freeze-fawn mode. When this happens, your sympathetic nervous system is activated. Here you can’t relax or think clearly. The part of your brain responsible for wise decision making, your prefrontal cortex, also shuts down. You will have natural urges to do or say things which aren’t helpful like attacking your partner or shutting down. Or you may want to brush your concerns off just to make them happy.
If you try to keep communicating with your partner when one, or both, of you are in this state nothing effective will come of it. In fact, you probably will do or say things you regret later. To communicate well, and protect your relationship, you must take a self-soothing break. This helps you regulate your own emotions to return to the conversation later in a space where you can communicate respectfully.
You Will Always Need Breaks
No matter how much you practice communication or emotional regulation skills, your body and brain will still have this natural reaction when you feel threatened. When this happens the most important thing is to take a break to calm yourself down and activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
Some partners, especially those with anxious attachment become overwhelmed if their partner wants a timeout. Therefore, it’s very helpful to discuss this plan in advance with your partner. Ideally, they will be willing to take a self-soothing break too to improve your communication.
If you would like support on knowing how to soothe yourself effectively, please download the free therapeutic handout I made for you:
Good Communication in a Relationship Tip #3: You are Not Responsible for How Others Speak to You
How others speak to you is their choice and responsibility regardless of what they may tell you. Your partner gets to decide how they speak to you. This may be a conscious choice such as when they use communication skills. Or they may communicate reactively for example in their fight or flight mode.
You can only control what you say. Make sure that you are mindful of any signs of gaslighting to stay connected to your truth.
Good Communication in a Relationship Tip #4: You’re Not Entitled to Be Mean Back
When you have a partner who is critical, withdrawn, or hurtful in their communication it’s natural to want to give them a dose of their own medicine. Yet this isn’t good communication. It will only further hurt your relationship. This also hurts your self-esteem because it reinforces the idea you are powerless.
You are responsible for self-soothing instead of reacting cruelly when you feel attacked or overwhelmed communicating with your partner. You are also responsible for setting boundaries to protect yourself and if needed, you may walk away from the relationship if you continue to be attacked.
Good Communication in a Relationship Tip #5: Don’t Sweep Things Under the Rug
If your partner communicates in ways which hurt or offend you, it’s important to assert this. The only effective way to resolve communication issues is through conscious effort.
It’s natural to not want to linger on problems and just focus on having fun together. Unfortunately, when we move on too quickly, it causes issues to fester and resentments to build. If we stay stuck in this cycle for too long, our relationship can become beyond repair.
Often we avoid these conversations because it’s uncomfortable to feel angry especially towards someone we love. To communicate well with your partner, and have a healthy relationship, you must assert yourself and stay committed to enforcing your boundaries. You may be nervous about boundary setting but please know this: The only people you will ever lose by setting a boundary consistently are people who are fundamentally unsafe for you.
Good Communication in a Relationship Tip # 6: An Apology isn’t Enough
As a couple’s therapist a frequent complaint I hear is that a partner changes briefly yet reverts back to being aggressive or withdrawn shortly after.
Genuine accountability is more than an apology; it’s taking conscious steps to truly change this pattern. For example, if your partner says “sorry” but isn’t willing to take action on developing better coping skills for anger, let’s say, and communication skills they aren’t taking genuine accountability.
Of course, there is no perfect person. Your partner may make mistakes throughout this process. However, a safe person is willing to take genuine accountability and do the hard work of changing rather than just placating you with an apology. It will require effort, time, and practice to change unhealthy communication patterns, but accountability must be present.
Good Communication in a Relationship Tip #7: Seek Therapy if You Stuck in Poor Communication Habits
A therapist can teach you and your partner how to communicate assertively while managing your anger, resentment, and anxiety more effectively. Of course, going to therapy isn’t enough. You will have to commit to practicing the skills you use in therapy.
If your partner is unwilling to change, and put in effort, you have done nothing wrong. Some people just aren’t capable or willing to do the hard work of changing and it has nothing to do with your worth. At this point, you may need to explore if it’s time to leave the relationship.
About The Author
Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist with over a decade of experience. Currently, Krystal sees clients at her private practice, The Healthy Relationship Foundation. She has dedicated her entire career to empowering people to heal from unhealthy relationship processes. She does this by teaching the skills and tools necessary to have a life filled with healthy and loving relationships.
This passion led her to write her best-selling books and create courses. Her books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many people heal.
She is currently working on her book, Self-Love Made Possible: The 5-Step Guide to Stop Being Your Own Worst Enemy and Become Your Own Best Friend. To be notified of its release, please join the waitlist here.
If you have any personal dating or relationship questions, Krystal is happy to provide advice using her expertise and compassion. If you feel comfortable, feel free to leave any questions in the comments of this post. Otherwise, you may send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or DM her on Instagram.
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