Do you know how to create a good communication dynamic within your relationship? “We never fight!” Or “My partner and I talk a lot. We’re okay.” These may be true. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you are communicating (or communicating well).
I say it often- show me a couple that doesn’t “argue” and I’ll show you a couple that isn’t communicating.
Communication is more than just talking to each other. Communication is about expressing our feelings and needs to a partner. It’s also about hearing and being receptive to your partner’s needs and feelings. Would you believe that communication is just as much about listening as it is about talking? I would probably argue listening is 95% of the battle.
John Gottman, a renowned couples therapist, has outlined the four communication habits that are known “killers” of effective communication.
The Four Horsemen: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling are habits couples should avoid at all costs. They are “killers” because they shut down conversation, create tension, and are a breading ground for resentment and frustration to ensue.
Relationship communication exercises can make a big difference in how you communicate. Whether you and your partner have communication struggles or not, these communication exercises will help rebuild your relationship or make more harmonious with better understanding.
Here’s the BIG catch though….
You can’t learn these skills in a moment of tension. You have to practice them and make them typical in non-stressful moments so that they can then benefit you when you need them.
Couple exercise #1: The weekly (or daily) check-in
Life is busy and full of distractions. Sometimes the best we can do is a simple, “how was your day?” as you pass by each other heading somewhere else. This works for a little while, but ultimately, there needs to be time set aside to check in with each other on a meaningful level.
A simple exercise: set regular check-ins, or make it part of your regular routine (such as taking a walk together every night). and they don’t have to be long. Just take as much time as you both need to catch each other up on what’s really been going on in your respective lives. One option is to use a “State of the Union” meeting outline; a favorite of mine to provide structure to what may be a strange conversation if you’re not used to it! https://www.gottman.com/blog/how-to-have-a-state-of-the-union-meeting/
Couple exercise #2: Share your emotions
Practice using feeling words, not just thoughts, observations, accusations (I know this game!) or demands. Sharing your feelings in a relationship will help in your partner understanding you, your needs, and how they can support you.
Struggle with feeling words? I got you. Use this chart to help identify emotions for yourself that you can then communicate. Oh, but Dr. M, can it be more than one emotion at a time? You bet.
Couple exercise #3: Communication is taking turns
One lesson that everyone needs to learn is in order to have good communication, we need to listen. But like, really. And we can’t do that if we are talking or forming our next response.
The most basic way to slow this down- set a timer. Yup. Get a timer and set it to 3-5 minutes, then choose who will speak first. Start the timer and begin speaking without the other interrupting. Then continue this back and forth.
The other partner can show non-verbal signs of communication to show acknowledgement, understanding, and empathy, but no talking, rebutting, and try to withhold from rolling your eyes.
It can teaches the couple to respect their partner’s time while listening as they wait for their turn, and normalize the act of slowing down the conversation.
Couple exercise #4: Say what you need. Not just what you don’t like.
This is a big one.
“You are so lazy! You could start helping with the household chores!”
When in an argument it is extremely common for us to use words like “you”, “should”, and “could” but these words lead to people feeling attacked, causing a defensive and often causes the argument to escalate.
Try it this way.
“I feel ______ when you don’t _____. The reason is that _____. I would appreciate it if you would ________.”
Couple exercise #5: Trust and listen game
Wanna have some fun? This one is silly, but can highlight some basic issues in communication and trusting what you’re being told. One partner creates a fun obstacle course with “mines or bombs” while the other is being blindfolded. Using verbal cues, the creator of the obstacle then guides the one blindfolded through the course, making sure they don’t step on the “bombs.
Couple exercise #6: Lend me a hand
This game is another way to work on communication, build trust, and achieve the same goal. The couple has an arm that is tied behind their backs. Then, both will communicate actions and instructions to get things done.
Tasks can include fixing a room, tying shoes, folding laundry, etc. They seem like simple tasks but with only one arm you realize you need your partner there.
Couple exercise #7: You, me & our future
When the day is done and you’re finished with all the fun and games, just lay in bed and talk about your plans. It could be about having kids, starting a business, getting married, etc. Try and zoom out from the day to day monotony and logistics of how we’ll accomplish this thing tomorrow. Dream a bit. Making this a regular conversation is really helpful and normalizes the act of shared meaning in life. The goal here is to connect!
-Work on listening to understand and not for the purpose of responding. Big difference.
-Don’t lose sight of the end goal in mind. Communicate to build a strong love bond and not break it. You can share your opinions, beliefs, even disappointments, but you still have a relationship you must protect. Argue with your partner like they are someone you love.
-You don’t win any argument by crushing your partner in the process. You’ll still lose.
Good communication can help us address issues within the relationship, find the proper approach to fix them and to open up, maintain an open communication where we feel comfortable, repair or remove toxic communication styles such as yelling and blaming.
One of the early questions I’m asking people in therapy is “How did you see your parents communicate?” We learn from what we observe, what we see. Being mindful of the kind of example you want to set is another motivation to communicate effectively.
There are so many exercises couples can do to help with communication and grow closer. If one doesn’t work for you, try the next one.
Here are some more options!
Samantha Morel, Ph.D.