When it comes to maintaining a healthy, happy, and successful relationship, it pretty much always boils down to communication—and as the wise (and incredibly funny) comedian Mary Beth Barone once told me, “Communication in a relationship is only as good as the worst communicator.” Let that one sit for a minute. You might be the best communicator in the world, with nonstop dedication to personal growth and development, but if your partner has poor communication and is not doing the work too, your relationship is likely destined for much more difficult and uncomfortable obstacles.
The thing about obstacles in relationships is that they are completely normal (and even necessary), but what is crucial in differentiating the success of your relationship is how you handle those obstacles when they come up. There are so many important milestones and elements that go into a successful relationship, and they all involve communication. Whether you are communicating about your future together, your personal career ambitions, your vision for your family, your finances, or your sex life, the key is to become comfortable with being open, honest, and clear with your partner about how you feel and what you want.
In a recent conversation with Logan Ury, behavioral scientist, dating coach, director of Relationship Science at Hinge, and author of How to Not Die Alone: The Surprising Science That Will Help You Find Love, she explained that while some couples “decide their way through relationship milestones,” others “slide through relationship milestones.” This essentially means that some couples are intentional about making decisions in their relationship. They talk about where they see the relationship going, whether that means becoming exclusive, defining the relationship, moving in together, or so on. They have clear conversations and make these decisions together. The other couples seem to ride more of a relationship roller coaster where they take no control or accountability over where they are heading.
The example Ury gave is moving in together because your lease is up and you spend all your time together anyway versus having an intentional conversation about moving in together. Can you guess which couples have healthier relationships? “Research shows that couples that decide their way through these moments are happier, more successful, have better sex, and are really just in healthier relationships,” Ury said.
Why do we suck at communicating?
First, let’s take a look at why people tend to drag their feet when it comes to communicating their wants and needs. On paper, it seems pretty simple: You want something, you say it. But in reality, Ury explained that “One of the reasons why people don’t do this is that they have a lot of fear that they’re going to get an answer they don’t want.” She goes on to say that even though fear can often hold us back from asking the question, “almost without fail, it’s better to know than not know.”
So we’ve covered that communication is key, but for whatever reason, a lot of us still don’t take the time to work on it once we’re in a relationship. Ury said of the clients she works with, the majority of them are those who are looking for love. Once we find the relationship, many of us tend to just check that box and stop doing the work. But really, this is when the work should double down.
How to improve communication in relationships
OK, then how do we improve communication in our relationships and become one of those happier couples? “It’s really about having the hard conversation when it happens, over time, when it feels small, versus letting it build up into resentment, which maybe you can’t come back from,” Ury said. In terms of couples who break up because of miscommunication or lack of communication, Ury feels that “so many couples break up because of resentment (not feeling listened to, seen, etc.) that then builds up and explodes.” Having those conversations in the moment, day-to-day, and without fear of your partner’s responses will help you strengthen your relationship and avoid those feelings of resentment.
1. Be honest about your communication habits
It is also incredibly important to be honest with yourself about how good your communication is. The age-old rule: The first step is admitting there is a problem. Do you find yourself guessing how your partner feels? Or deciding their point of view without even asking them? Maybe those roles are reversed and you constantly feel misunderstood by your partner. These are all signs of a lack of communication.
2. Stay in the present moment
When conflicts do arise with your partner, do your best to stay in the present moment. Avoid bringing up things that happened in the past, as they are typically not relevant to what is at hand. Luckily, if you are practicing good communication along the way, bringing up the past will not be an issue, as you would have already dealt with any past issues.
3. Be solution-oriented
If you are communicating with your partner about something that bothers you or a problem you see in the relationship, try not to only focus on the problem or negative feeling. Instead, bring a solution to the table. Maybe you are angry because they often forget to let you know when they get home after you’ve asked them to. Rather than harping on what you believe they’ve done wrong, maybe suggest or ask that they text you on their commute home and explain to them why you are asking for this.
4. Communicate with gestures
Remember, while communication is mostly words, you can also communicate how you feel with gestures, and this can be a huge added benefit to your relationship. Keep those words flowing, but maybe tune in to your partner’s love language and communicate your love through acts of service or physical touch.
5. Talk with a therapist
Another amazing asset for improving communication is working with a therapist or dating coach. Ury does work with a few (very smart) couples who utilize her expertise to continue to improve their relationship. Often, couples will wait for a major obstacle to seek therapy or coaching, but again, using these methods throughout your relationship is the real recipe for success.
Whether in therapy, with a coach, or on your own, never stop making an effort to know your partner. Continue to ask them questions and listen to the answers. People are constantly changing, and if you are lucky (and you keep the communication flowing), your relationship will evolve and grow while you both grow individually too.