Many couples make this mistake: They expect and assume that harmony will automatically happen in their relationship. But the opposite is true: “What appears automatically in human relationships is friction,” said Chris Kingman, LCSW, a psychotherapist and couples expert in Manhattan.
That’s because partners have different preferences, styles, expectations and needs, he said. Harmony actually happens when we deal constructively and effectively with the inevitable frictions inside our relationships (and our lives).
One way we can do that is through communicating well with our partners. In the book More Love, Less Conflict: A Communication Playbook for Couples, psychotherapist Jonathan Robinson, MFT, shares a variety of valuable pointers and insights. Below are five important tips from his book.
Come from a sincere place of curiosity. Curiosity is powerful. When someone is curious about us—how we’re doing, how we’re feeling, what we like, what we need—it’s validating. It’s the first step to helping us feel understood and cared for. Curiosity sharpens our connection with our partner, and helps us resolve conflict.
But the key is to be sincere about it. For instance, Robinson was working with a couple who frequently fought. The husband said he’d try this technique in session. His first two questions were: “Why don’t you appreciate anything I do for you? Why are you upset all the time?”
The problem? The first question reeks of blame. The second reeks of resentment. His third question spoke to sincere curiosity, because he asked: “What is something I could do that you would really appreciate?” He genuinely didn’t know.
Curious questions are questions that aren’t steeped in judgment or criticism or defensiveness. They don’t assume that you know what’s going on. As Robinson writes, “There’s always something new to learn.”
Reflect on your contribution. Taking responsibility for your part in an argument or problem is really hard. But it’s also very helpful. Because when we’re accountable for actions that added to an issue, the distance between us shortens, and our love grows. Taking responsibility shows your partner that you understand their point of view. “Once partners feel understood, they can magically let go of blame—since they no longer have to convince each other to see their individual perspectives,” Robinson writes.
He suggests partners tell each other this: “I can see that my (specific behavior/shortcoming) contributed (to the problem at hand).” Here’s an example: “I can see that my tendency to rush and leave late contributed to our being late to the party tonight.”
Focus on positive intention. According to Robinson, “A positive intention is the ultimate positive reason your partner is pursuing a certain behavior.” Identifying the positive intention behind a behavior is a powerful path to accessing understanding, acceptance and empathy.
For instance, your partner complains often, and it grates on your nerves. But she might be complaining because she yearns for comfort, support or safety. When you know your partner’s positive intention, you can truly help. As Robinson writes, if you know that a desire for more security underlies your partner’s complaining, you can inquire: “What would help you to feel even more secure in our relationship?” versus asking, “Why do you complain all the time?”
Share your feelings in a vulnerable way. “Good communicators know what they’re feeling and wanting and are curious about the feelings and desires of others,” Robinson writes. And what strengthens a relationship is when we express those feelings and wants in constructive ways. Because, even though most of us think they are, our partners aren’t mind readers.
To share your feelings, Robinson suggests this simple exercise: “I’m feeling… I’m wanting…” You know you’re on the right track with this exercise when you feel vulnerable (instead of self-righteous).
Robinson shares this example: Instead of saying, “I’m feeling you’re a moron, and I want you to be different,” say: “I’m feeling irritated, and I want to feel supported and appreciated by you.”
Confirm your interpretation. This exercise involves saying: “I notice… I imagine…” That is, Robinson encourages partners to say what they see (i.e., noticeable observations)—and then to say what you imagine to be true based on your observation.
“As you say what you notice about your partner in the present moment, you create a potential moment of intimacy and connection,” he writes. “Then, by saying what you imagine about your partner, “you create a ‘shared reality’ with them.”
You invite your partner to tell you whether your interpretation is true, which helps to minimize misunderstanding. It gives your partner a chance to express themselves, to share what’s bothering them, to be heard.
Robinson shares this example: “I notice you didn’t give me a morning hug, and I imagine you’re upset with me.” If your partner remains silent, you can say: Is this correct?
How we communicate with our partners can make or break our relationship. When we’re genuinely curious, when we take responsibility for our behavior, when we share our feelings with vulnerability, we can strengthen our connection—likely more than we ever thought possible.