We assume that communication should come naturally to us, and maybe we think it does, especially in our romantic relationships. After all, we communicate all the time. We talk to our partners all the time about a wide range of topics, from what’s going on with our jobs to what’s for dinner to why we’re feeling so upset.
But good—clear, connection-enhancing—communication takes work. It requires some education, effort and practice. You’ll likely still stumble from time to time. Because, of course, you’re human.
In fact, you might be unwittingly making certain communication mistakes right now—mistakes that actually ignite or exacerbate conflict between you and your partner. Below you’ll find four common communication mistakes, along with how you can fix them.
Mistake #1: Using some version of “I totally understand”
According to Chris Kingman, LCSW, who specializes in individual and couples therapy, this is a toxic mistake he regularly sees couples make. We say, I get it. I completely understand where you’re coming from. I totally hear you. I appreciate what you’re saying.
Ironically, this makes our partners feel less heard and less understood and less appreciated, Kingman said. And it tends to deepen any conflict.
The reality is that you can’t decide if you’ve heard and understood your partner. Only your partner can. In other words, if they tell you that they feel heard and understood, then you’ve heard and understood them. This is why it’s important to do the work of learning how to listen effectively, Kingman said. This means validating and mirroring back what they’ve said about their thoughts, feelings, and experiences, he said.
It means empathizing with your partner, which consists of two ingredients: First, be open like a “moviegoer who allows himself to be absorbed in a film and moved by the actors,” Michael P. Nichols, Ph.D, writes in his book The Lost Art of Listening. Secondly, “shift from feeling with a speaker to thinking about her. What is she saying? Meaning? Feeling?”
Mistake #2: Using the word “But”
Using the word “but” discredits our partner, and it’s not helpful when you’re focused on your relationship’s well-being, said Rebecca Wong, LCSW-R, a relationship therapist and founder of connectfulness.com. Here’s an example: “I love that you helped with the dishes after dinner tonight but I’d like that sort of support every day.”
Instead she suggested substituting the word “and”: “I love that you helped with the dishes after dinner tonight and I’d like that sort of support every day.” It’s essentially the same sentiment, but this small shift instantly creates a meaningful difference. It sounds kinder and softer and more appreciative. It sounds like a request versus a demand.
Mistake #3: Getting defensive
Getting defensive is totally natural and normal. It’s an automatic response to feeling threatened or flooded, Wong said. For instance, your partner says they feel overwhelmed with household chores, and you automatically start listing everything you’ve done in the past week. Your partner says you forgot an important appointment, which makes them wonder if you really care. And you start saying they should’ve reminded you, and lately you’ve had too much on your plate and on your mind, anyway, and they’re being a bit ridiculous to expect you to remember under these sorts of circumstances.
The solution to reacting defensively? “This may sound awfully simple, but your first task is to slow down,” Wong said. Take a time-out. Tell your partner that you need to take a break, and will return to the conversation in _______ amount of time. Take this time to reflect on what’s triggered you. What caused your shield to go up? Then “notice what you can take responsibility for, be accountable for and own up to,” Wong said. “When you do that, what shifts?”
Mistake #4: Judging your partner
You might tell your partner any version of these statements: “You have no idea what you’re talking about” “You’re so unreasonable and illogical” “You make zero sense!!” “You’re so sensitive” “I can’t believe something this trivial is bothering you.”
These kinds of statements are insulting and make partners “feel foolish and shamed,” said Kathy Nickerson, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in relationships. These kinds of statements inevitably impede communication.
Instead, try to see your partner’s perspective, she said. Try to discover “what things look like from inside that person’s world,” Nichols writes in the Lost Art of Listening. Focus on listening, rather than formulating an argument in your mind that pokes holes in what they’re saying. “[L]isten like a friend, not like a lawyer,” Nickerson said.
Nickerson also suggested avoiding these additional communication don’ts: Don’t attack or criticize. Don’t use profanity or call each other names. Don’t call each other “crazy.” Don’t make threats or give ultimatums. Don’t bring up every fight or issue you’ve ever had. Don’t bring in other people’s opinions. Don’t mention divorce.
These might seem like common sense. Of course, you shouldn’t insult your partner or fling four-letter words at them. But in the heat of the moment, many of us are guilty of doing at least one of these don’ts. Many of us are guilty of trying to win a conflict, instead of trying to understand each other.
After all, conflict can spark intense emotion—and you feel like you have very little control over what you’re saying. If you aren’t able to have a constructive conversation with your partner, again, it’s time to take a break, and, return after you’ve cooled off and calmed down.
How couples navigate communication (and conflict) makes or breaks their connection. The good news is that this is something you can learn and work on. The key is to start right now.