The Importance of Healthy Communication in Relationships

The Importance of Healthy Communication in Relationships

I often ask my clients what the difference is between healthy communication and unhealthy communication. The responses of course are varied but so far have all shared a similar theme. Effective communication leads to resolutions while ineffective communication does not. In many cases, poor communication leads to conflict, and avoidance, and furthers a divide between two people. Effective communication skills are vital for life in general but are especially important in relationships. 

The Importance of Proper Communication in a Relationship

Recognizing common signs of ineffective communication is rarely difficult. You leave a particular discussion feeling a whole host of negative emotions, loneliness, sadness, etc., and know intuitively that the conversation went poorly. Many couples in my office discuss yelling, interrupting, getting off-topic, defensiveness, and name-calling as commonly employed unhealthy communication techniques. Others include contemptuous remarks, shaming statements, silence, or apathy. This is not an exhaustive list of unhealthy communication behaviors because anything that leaves you with the feelings I described at the beginning of this paragraph counts. The impact of these negative behaviors can not be overstated. They quite literally tear relationships apart. The impact can be felt suddenly or build up over time but the result is often sadly the same-disillusionment and the end of a relationship. Therefore, it is important to reflect on your own personal communication patterns and improve those areas where you are lacking. 

Proper communication brings people closer together. The entire purpose of the languages we speak is to send and receive messages. When those messages are lost due to unhealthy communication patterns, everything else can suffer. If you want to draw closer to those around you, healthy communication is required. Feeling heard and understood builds trust and understanding and strengthens the foundations of the relationship. Human beings thrive when known by other human beings, especially those closest to you like a spouse, partner, or family member. When you feel misunderstood, it can feel isolating to the point of madness. A common refrain in my office is, “You don’t understand.” This type of statement is a hallmark of poor communication. 

It is possible to improve communication in any relationship with enough motivation and time. We, as individuals, desire to be known and understood. It stands to reason our spouse/partner/family member desires the same thing. Wanting to give someone else what we also desire is an important aspect of improving our communication patterns. 

Tips for Improving Communication

Truly knowing someone else is a gift that we can give them. There are many things that improve communication between two people. 

  • Active Listening is a key skill that is useful not only for your therapist but also when interacting with anyone. Active listening is exemplified in many ways but the point is that you are really trying to understand what the other person is saying. Making consistent eye contact, asking questions at appropriate times, and making sure your non-verbals are open and engaged are easy ways to show to the other person that you care about what they are saying (nothing destroys a healthy conversation like an errant eye roll or overly aggressive sigh.) This method will also allow you to better focus and hear them. It is next to impossible to accomplish these behaviors while distracted. Therefore it is important to limit distractions caused by screens, kids, or sometimes your own thoughts while practicing active listening. Another key component of active listening is reflecting and validating your partner’s feelings. Reflecting statements like ‘it sounds like you are saying’ can go a long way towards your partner feeling heard. Also of note, validating does not mean agreeing with. You are simply trying to let your partner know that you understand how they feel. Never challenge someone’s subjective feelings on a matter. That will only further defensiveness and push them away.
  • Expressing needs clearly is a hallmark of healthy communication and a main focus of couples therapy. Every relationship you have boils down to the need for fulfillment. When the majority of your needs are being fulfilled, you feel good about the relationship. When the majority are going unfulfilled, you begin to feel bad about the relationship. You have a hierarchy of needs for each relationship in your life and so does your partner! Expressing needs clearly is important because without expressing a need, there should be no expectation that it will be fulfilled. Neither you nor your partner can read minds and so you should not assume that your partner intuitively knows what you need. I liken need fulfillment to throwing darts at a dart board. Your partner may hit the bullseye every once in a while on their own (and it is fantastic when this happens), but if you want to increase the frequency of bullseyes, you need to express your needs to your partner. This requires open, honest dialogue about what is missing in the relationship. 
  • To hear a need expressed and not become defensive requires empathy and understanding. As mentioned previously, trying to truly understand your partner and fulfill their needs is a gift that you are giving them in addition to a gift you too would like to receive. Empathy requires putting yourself in their shoes and seeing the world through their eyes. When done correctly, it softens your responses and allows active listening to occur. 
  • Timing and environment are crucial, albeit often overlooked, aspects of healthy communication. In the past, I have suggested couples read ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu to hammer home this point. You don’t go into battle unless the timing and location are in your best interests. (I stopped using this analogy when a couple called me out for comparing marital communication to war). But the point remains. Do not engage on serious topics if both of you have had a particularly hard day. Never engage in contentious topics while driving (you are not facing each other and there is no escape if things turn into conflict). If necessary, agree upon a time and place for a conversation that will maximize the ability to listen and understand each other. Everyone is different in this regard. Some people are more talkative in the mornings while their partner prefers late-night discussion. When in doubt, compromise with your partner, and don’t be afraid to experiment with different times/locations to find what works best for your relationship. 

When to Seek the Help of a Mental Health Professional

None of these techniques are easy and therefore it is often necessary to work with a professional to improve healthy communication in a relationship. Recognizing consistent patterns of unhealthy communication is the first step. Do not ignore the signs of unhealthy communication patterns. Focus on the frequency of challenges, intensity of challenges, and duration of challenges. If unhealthy patterns of communication happen often, are intense when they arise, and last for a long time once begun, it is time to seek professional help. 

I use a metaphor to illustrate how couples often use therapy to help with relational breakdowns. Basically, a couple uses therapy the opposite way they would use the fire department. For example: a couple comes home to find a small fire in their kitchen. Instead of calling the fire department right away, they ignore it. After a period of time, they realize the entire kitchen is now on fire. Instead of calling the fire department, they try to put it out on their own. After getting burned by the fire and realizing that the entire first floor of their house is aflame, they finally call the fire department to put it out. Instead of reaching out to a professional when the problem is small, they ignore it. They then try to do it themselves only when it gets big enough. And finally, they set up a consultation with a therapist only after the fire threatens the entire relationship. If couples sought help when the fire was small, they would be able to remedy the problem much more easily. Sometimes therapy takes the form of couples therapy. If individual issues are prevalent in the breakdown of communication between partners, individual therapy is often recommended as well. Couples that have dealt with issues for a long time (the entire first floor is on fire) can also benefit from intensive marriage work through the form of marriage intensives. 

If you are struggling with communication and have noticed the development of unhealthy patterns in your relationship, Heritage is here to help you. Our team of licensed counselors and psychologists are trained to improve relational communication and enrich relationships through evidence-based interventions. We accomplish these goals through a variety of therapeutic relationships including marriage intensives, couples counseling, and individual therapy. Our administrative team is available to answer any questions you might have about the process and help you get scheduled with the right therapist. To take the first step, give us a call at 214-363-2345.