“We don’t talk anymore” – how to put communication back into your relationship

2 Feb, 2023 | Relationships

5 Minute Read

Words by WYLDE MOON staff writer

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Lack of communication is major danger-zone for any relationship, with couples who split up spending an average of just four minutes a day in conversation.

Fiona Cowood discovers how to get it right.

There’s perhaps nothing more moving than watching two people profess their undying love for one another in a wedding or civil partnership ceremony. The pin drop silence, the whispered promises and wiped-away tears…nothing quite beats it. But it’s a shame that in amongst all the having, holding and cherishing, the creators of those vows didn’t think to throw in some talking and listening – because studies show that the future health of a relationship depends on them.

A major US study from 2019 discovered that communication problems were the most common factor that leads to divorce (68%) and according to another study, couples who split up spend an average of just four minutes a day in conversation. The ability to talk and to listen – two things we take for granted and rarely think about – are vital to a happy partnership. Yet how often do you truly feel heard? How often do you get interrupted or contradicted, or realise, mid-vent, that your partner is scrolling on his or her phone?

Clinical psychologist and author, Michaela Thomas, has counselled many couples and she agrees that failure to talk and listen is likely to spell trouble for any couple hoping for the long haul. With a committed relationship comes thousands of big and small issues – money, sex, choosing a sofa, having a family, where to live, how to divide chores, what to watch on Netflix…If you can’t engage healthily, that’s a lot of potential conflict coming down the line.

“Without communication, it’s impossible to know what’s going on in your partner’s mind and when you don’t communicate, it’s easy to misunderstand one another and make assumptions. People grow and evolve so we need to update our understanding of one another by checking in and listening – otherwise you run the risk of drifting apart, stagnating or having huge misunderstandings,” explains Thomas.

But as straightforward as they sound, there’s a lot more to ‘speaking’ and ‘listening’ than you might first imagine. Thomas encourages her clients to think of a healthy conversation as a ball being thrown back and forth – and she suggests focusing on the way you throw it. “If you throw it hard at your partner, they will either duck to avoid getting hit, and not take on board what you’ve said, or they will get hit and be hurt. Nothing good comes of that, as they either get angry and defensive, retaliating with an equally hard throwback, or give up trying to play, feeling too sad or injured to go on,” she says. “If you throw it gently, they can return the ball with a follow-up question or validating comment and keep the connection going.”

Sounds simple, right? Yet thousands of couples break up every year citing communication issues. These skills aren’t particularly taught in school and depending on your upbringing, you might have witnessed a communication style that resembled a warzone more than a game of catch. “We have to practise them,” says Michaela, adding that the world we live in doesn’t particularly encourage or reward language that’s moderate and considered. “On TV and social media there is a lot of expressed emotion that is used for effect – people sharing punchy lines, or making ‘clickbaity’ statements.

Think of healthy conversations as a ball being thrown back and forth – gently.

So, what is ‘best practice’ when you’ve got something to get off your chest? Thomas has coined the term ‘compassionate communication’ to describe a healthy back-and-forth that is rooted in love and care for one another. “When the whole process is driven by care and respect, you create a safe, non-judgemental, kind and strong space,” she says. “It means you slow down and think about how you frame things. It means you might start with ‘My feelings were hurt by XYZ’ rather than ‘Why do you always XYZ?’ It also changes what you’re doing non-verbally. Regardless of the words you’re saying, perhaps you’re coming across aggressively because of your flared nostrils and dilated pupils – compassionate communication is about speaking slowly, breathing your way through the conversation, leaving gaps for the other person to respond.”

It’s also important to be clear – even downright obvious – in what you need and want from your partner. Perhaps you just need to offload and you’re not looking for fixes or solutions. “In that case, tell them,” says Thomas. “Usually people respond well to that – it’s a clear instruction to put themselves in listening mode.” Likewise, if you’re talking, try to steer yourself away from the words ‘always’ and ‘never’ – it can be overwhelming to be told off for ‘always’ being selfish, or ‘never’ doing what you promise. Sometimes, you might interrupt one another, veer off on a tangent and get angry but the trick, says Thomas, is to accept that.

“Our brains do unruly things so of course there will be times that you get riled up but the repair you do afterwards is key,” she says. “It’s not about getting it right every single time – there will be times when you’re stressed at work or feeling run down and you don’t communicate as well as you’d like. But if anything, imperfection feeds connection. The repairs you make afterwards can be so powerful. Anyone reading this shouldn’t feel like ‘communication is another thing they’ve got to get right’ – it’s an ongoing process. When you promise to be together, always and forever, you’re promising to keep practising. That way, you can tolerate it when one another gets it wrong – you can give each other grace.”

‘The Lasting Connection: Developing Love and Compassion for Yourself and Your Partner’ by Michaela Thomas (Robinson), £14.99 is out now.

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