At the start of a new relationship, it’s easy to be at our best. Newly smitten, our brains are soaked in feel-good hormones. Driven to get to know the delightful new person in our lives, we ask good questions, make considerate gestures and pile on the affection.
Of course, in the early days our interactions aren’t yet cluttered with shared responsibilities like taking out the recycling or dropping kids off at school. They’re not likely strained by anyone’s dissatisfaction with their job or worry about aging parents.
A friend of mine liked to describe this discovery phase of a relationship as follows: “Mint chocolate chip?! That’s my favourite kind of ice cream, too!”
It can be a challenge to keep a strong, healthy connection when the first blush of romance has long faded and you can hardly see each other over the stacks of dishes and laundry that stand between you and a decent night of sleep.
When I look back on my married life, I know that there were plenty of times when my communication style left things to be desired. When I got overwhelmed by responsibility and could have taken a lot more care with my tone. With far more life and relationship experience under my belt, I think that today I’m a lot better girlfriend to my partner, Ryan, than I was young wife to my kids’ dad.
The good news is that there are things you can do to improve your communication and increase your chances of making love last. Here’s a collection of tried-and-true tips and scripts for dynamic, successful communication.
1. Kiss hello and goodbye.
Sometimes the most powerful things are communicated with no words at all. “Kiss hello and goodbye, no matter how much of a hurry you’re in or how flustered you are from your day,” says divorced mom Kelly Weatherby, reflecting on her relationship with her former spouse. It’s easy to be harried during all of life’s comings and goings — especially if you’ve got kids in tow. But if you take the small amount of time and intention needed to greet each other and part warmly, it goes a long way to preserving connection.
2. Practice emotional responsibility.
It’s easy to fall into conversational patterns that put the onus on the other person for the way we feel. Really, though, each of us has responsibility for our own emotions. Here’s a simple shift that any of us can make. Instead of saying, “You make me feel like XYZ,” instead try “I feel like XYZ.” It’s a safer conversational environment when we own our feelings and discuss them, rather than coming at each other with emotional guns blazing.
Likewise, you may want to consider what marriage and family therapist Shadeen Francis has to say about the the difference between honesty and transparency. Honesty is great, and it’s what most of us strive for. But Francis points out that we may want to go one better and offer our partners transparency instead.
She explains it with this French fries analogy. Honesty is asking “Did you eat one of my fries when I went to the washroom?’ and your partner answering “Yes, I did.” Transparency is: “I ate some of your fries when you were in the washroom,” or even better, “I’m going to be really tempted to have some of your fries while you’re in the washroom.” The difference is that, with honesty, one person is pursuing truth — which relies on them to ask the right questions — rather than being offered it by their partner. Therefore, we should be aiming for transparency instead.
3. Learn each other’s love languages.
Each of us has a way that we feel most natural expressing love and that, likewise, makes us feel most valued and secure in our partner’s affections for us. That’s the basis of Dr. Gary Chapman’s internationally bestselling book The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts, which people have been turning to for relationship advice since the first edition came out in 1992. Those five love languages include: quality time, words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service and physical touch. Some people really rely on hearing their partner express love and appreciation verbally, while others assess their value to their mate based on how physically affectionate they are, or how often they show up with bouquet of flowers. The tricky part? There’s often a mismatch between the love language we speak and that of our partner. “We cannot rely on our native tongue if our spouse does not understand it,” writes Chapman. “If we want him or her to feel the love we are trying to communicate, we must express it in his or her primary love language.” Whether or not you pick up a copy of the book, it’s worth spending some time pondering which of the love languages apply most to you and your partner. You can talk it over, or, simply start showing up in the way that’s most valuable to them.
4. Try a “no dumping” policy.
It’s easy to rely so heavily on a partner that, by default, we bring everything that worries or bothers of us over the course of the day to that one person.
Gretchen Rubin writes about this in The Happiness Project. In the chapter titled, “Remember love,” she talks about the month she spent focussing on her own relationship dynamics, and in particular on how the ways she expressed her personal frustrations to her husband could be hard on the relationship.
I think I did that early on in my marriage. If I felt I was being treated unjustly by someone at work, or that I wasn’t doing a good enough job of keeping up at home, I expected to be able to unload about this to my husband. Just as they say it takes a village to raise a child, I now truly really believe that it takes one to support a healthy adult relationship, too. When we can turn to a trusted friend or colleague to share some of what we find challenging about life, not all of it lands in our partner’s lap.
5. Fight to tie, not to win.
Every relationship will encounter conflict — what matters is how you handle that conflict. In his book How to Be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving, David Richo stresses the importance of working toward understanding, not victory, when arguments happen.
“Cooperation — partnership — is the heart of conflict resolution. We are not working individually for the ascendancy of our own positions. We work together for the health and happiness of the relationship.” If instead we project the face of an opponent onto our partner, he says, “both of us have already lost.”
6. Be okay with vulnerability.
Each one of us comes to relationships with a mixture of early formative experiences, garden variety neuroses and irrational, lizard-brain-style fears that raise their ugly heads from time to time. If you haven’t already spent some time getting to know Dr. Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability, it’s really worth checking out her wildly popular Ted Talk as a place to start. Brown advocates — among other things — being open with our partners about the stories that run through our heads, using language that alerts the other person to your personal responsibility for the insecurity or irrationality in what you’re about to say. Use this script: “The story I’m making up is that when you sign up for all these Ultimate frisbee tournaments, you don’t want to spend time with me.” This acknowledges the line of thinking for what it is in a way that doesn’t make it feel like an accusation. Instead, it invites the other person to provide assurance without having to be on the defensive.
7. Make dates to talk.
It’s seems like it should be easy for spouses to talk. At least theoretically, you have lots of access to each other. But when things are busy it’s easy to find that you’ve talked only about the day’s logistics and not much else. Maybe you’ll have called your partner to remind them to pick up yogurt tubes at the grocery store, but not really asked about their day.
“So often we are in each other’s vicinity but not really present, and as much as we would love connection to be yearned for and spontaneous, we sometimes need to plan it,” says therapist and mom of two Kelly Bos. “Lately my husband and I have a date on the way to work by calling each other while commuting. It has actually been a lifesaver for communication.”