What happened the last time you were disappointed, angry, or hurt by something your partner did? If you chose to remain silent, you’re not alone. Many of us were never taught how to communicate effectively. Instead, we shut down or silently harbor resentment. Unfortunately, over time, these communication breakdowns create negative patterns that eventually dampen the intimacy in the relationship. “Often we stop communicating because one or both partners feels ‘it’s not worth it,’” says psychologist Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, PhD. “They have been down that path, and they think they know what it holds—more anger, bitterness, and frustration.” These are the defensive strategies we use to protect ourselves in the short run—and unknowingly snuff out intimacy in the long run.
Dismissal and disregard: These behaviors are two of the biggest intimacy killers in relationships, according to Holly Richmond, PhD, of Sex and the Soma. “If we tell our partner that we were hurt by something they said or did, and their response is to tell us we are overreacting or that we are wrong for feeling that way, it essentially invalidates our perspective,” says Dr. Richmond. It doesn’t take long for us to figure out that this kind of discussions will only be pointless and lead to more hurt. How to avoid the double D? The first steps is to create a setting conducive to good conversation. First off, don’t text. “I have never seen an argument via text turn out well. You lose inflection and body language—two essential pieces of the communication puzzle,” says Dr. Richmond. Second, find a quiet place without the distractions of kids, pets, phones, and TVs. Sit side by side but make sure you have eye contact. “Eye contact equals vulnerability, which equals intimacy, an important part of being heard is being seen,” Dr. Richmond says.
Next, try to empathize. Remember, this doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with your partner’s perspective, but your partner feelings should be validated. “The trying to understand piece is empathy, or literally the ability to say, ‘Oh, I can see how you would feel that way,’” says Dr. Richmond. Try reflective listening to practice empathy. “For example, if your partner says, ‘I’m furious that you were so late to our dinner date. How could you do that to me?’ You say, “I get that you are really upset with me right now and that I’ve hurt your feelings,’” says Dr. Richmond. This validates their feelings much better than saying, “Oh, I was only 20 minutes late. What’s the big deal?”
Resentment: So you told your partner you didn’t need their help with cleaning the garage, but while you are combating cobwebs and getting greasy, your partner is on the greens enjoying a game of golf. “Resentment stifles emotional growth and prevents the relationships from moving forward,” says Stephen Duclos, LMFT, CST of the South Shore Family Health Collaborative. Communicating resentment starts with an honest look inward. “At what point did you agree to something reluctantly?” says Duclos. “To restore intimacy, we first have to acknowledge our responsibility, and stop blaming our partner.” These couples married 50 years don’t let resentment kill their intimacy.
The “S” topic: When one or both partners shies away from talking about sex, it’s usually because they are worried about offending or hurting the other person’s feelings. Instead, needs are swept under the rug, resulting in stilted, infrequent sex, Duclos says. Developing open communication without fear of judgment is essential in all areas of discussion. “When couples develop a process for discussing their lives and needs, it paves the way for talking about subjects that may have previously felt ‘out of bounds,’ such as those messy, unpleasant fantasies and expectations,” says Duclos. These 31 libido boosters could help you both get in the mood.
It’s not too late: Even if you and your partner have established some not-so-great communication patterns, it’s not too late to turn things around. A simple strategy to practice before you engage in conversation is to start from a positive place. Instead of focusing on what is wrong with your partner or the situation, ask yourself, “what’s right with this situation?” Dr. Bais says this positive reframing is a conscious effort we make to list and think about the great and positive things about our partner, which automatically puts us in a healthier, happier frame of mind. “This happier place is subconsciously conveyed in the micro-expressions on our face and our vocal intonation, and are picked up by the other person. You can almost say anything—it’s all in how you say it,” says Dr. Bais. When you come from a cooperative place and pay attention to how you phrase what you want to convey, your good intentions will be picked up by your partner. Read the two examples from Dr. Bais and think about which one will get better results.
Scenario #1: Partner comes home from work and the other partner launches right into being tight on money and how the partner isn’t making enough money.
Scenario #2: After rest and a nice dinner, ask your partner if it’s a good time to chat. Pleasantly share financial goals and ask for help devising a strategy to meet them.