We know that communication is key in a relationship. After all, we aren’t mind readers. If we don’t talk about important topics, we don’t know where we stand. We don’t know where we’re headed. We don’t know what’s inside our partner’s heart.
Having meaningful conversations deepens our relationship — and keeps it healthy. By the time most couples arrive at Rebecca Wong’s office, they’ve stopped talking. They don’t share their thoughts or feelings. They don’t feel safe and comfortable doing so. They’ve already constructed tall walls.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Below Wong and other relationship experts share must-discuss topics to help you cultivate your connection and enhance your relationship — along with tips on how.
Needs and Roles
“Being in a modern intimate relationship often means couples find themselves holding many roles,” said Wong, LCSW-R, creator of Connectfulness and host of the Practice Of Being Seen podcast. And these roles are critical to discuss. For instance, partners can start to feel resentful about a role they’re taking on. If swept under the rug, resentment can easily chip away at the relationship. You might discuss everything from who takes on which household chores to who’s the primary caregiver.
Similarly, it’s vital to talk about each other’s needs. These questions can help you get started, according to Wong: “Is there something you need more of from your partner? Do you need more time for yourself? Do you need more time together?”
Sex and Intimacy
Talk about your intimate wants, needs and limits. Initially this might feel awkward and even intimidating, but the more frequently you discuss this, “the more comfortable and fun it’ll be. Yes, it can be fun!” said Lily Zehner, EdD, MFT-C, a Denver-based therapist who specializes in sex, intimacy and relationships. Wong suggested exploring this question: “Could your sexual intimacy become fuller if you explored…?”
When talking about sex, the key is to be gentle, marriage researcher John Gottman, Ph.D, and Nan Silver write in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. It’s important to adopt the attitude that “you are making a very good thing even better. Even if you aren’t satisfied with your current sex life, you need to accentuate the positive.” Here’s one example from the book: Instead of saying, “Don’t touch me there,” say, “It feels extra good when you touch me here.”
Money is an especially tough topic because it encompasses so many different elements. “Money represents love, security, the future, gifts, housing, equality or inequality, and power among other things,” said Dean Parker, Ph.D, a psychologist in Dix Hills, NY, who specializes in relationship counseling and sex therapy. For instance, he said, you might discuss: who’s paying the bills; your saving philosophies; buying pricey things; making investments; and making deposits and withdrawals from your bank account.
Speaking of which, Parker stressed the importance of married couples having a joint account. “I believe that when couples marry they are committing to one another on every level including financially… Having a joint account ensures openness about money and a sense of security about the future.”
When married couples have separate accounts, they pay attention to which partner is paying for what—as in one spouse pays the mortgage; the other pays the car insurance, he said. “The sense of couplehood is lost.”
We are ever-evolving, Zehner said. “Part of your evolution is your dreams, what you strive to accomplish, who you want to be. These are important parts of you that deserve to be shared often.” When you discuss your personal dreams, your partner can cheer you on and serve as a sounding board, Zehner said.
It’s also critical to have shared dreams. According to Wong, “Growth and passion are fueled by your collective dreams and desires, and you may stagnate if you don’t explore them together.” She suggested exploring the question: “What are we interested in achieving together?” For instance, this might be raising a family, buying a house, moving to a different city, traveling to Europe or starting a business together.
Each of us holds stories that predate our relationships, Wong said. These might be “old stories about loss or abandonment that get replayed in your current relationship in the form of your version of the internal ‘I’m not good enough’ sort of dialogue.” When we ignore these stories, and don’t explore them, they may overwhelm our partners and push them away—particularly when what we really need is comfort, she said. Talk to each other about your fears and worries and the situations that might trigger old stories to start spinning.
How to Communicate
The biggest problem that couples have in communication, Parker said, is time—or lack thereof. In fact, research from John Gottman found that couples had a face-to-face conversation for just 35 minutes. Per week. Which is why Parker asks couples to carve out 10 minutes a day to communicate about the above topics.
Zehner also encourages clients to have regular check-ins: Partners sit across from each other, looking into each other’s eyes, and ask, “How are you?” “How are we?” During your check-in, make sure to minimize distractions and leave devices in another room. If you have kids, wait until they’re asleep. The key is to give each other your undivided attention, Zehner said.
A check-in “allows for space to examine what is working and what is not, where adjustment is needed and where you two are jiving really well; to acknowledge all the goodness while also addressing issues as they arise before they grow into bigger resentments.”
Wong underscored the importance of setting some ground rules for vulnerable discussions. This way both partners feel safe sharing. She frequently shares Terry Real’s 10 Commandments of Time Outs with couples she works with.
Parker also noted that “the most important element in communication is listening.” While your partner is talking, make sure you’re actively listening, validating and reflecting back what they’re saying, he said.
Communication is a powerful way we sustain and grow our connection. It’s vital that we share our thoughts and feelings, and it’s vital that each partner provides a safe, sincere, compassionate environment so this can actually be done.