I’ve admitted it before in my post about music and masculinity. Still, it bears repeating: for a long time, I was a terrible communicator. I struggled in expressing even the most basic of conversations with friends, partners, and my parents, which often led to unhappy relationships, unmet expectations, and in some cases, resentment. And everyone knows that resentment is the death of any healthy relationship. So I needed to learn some ways to improve communication in relationships.
Obviously, the first person I spoke with was my therapist. He suggested that instead of attempting more difficult (i.e., scary) conversations, that I should choose safer options like my friends. And by merely having real conversations about how I was feeling, or standing up for myself if needed, I began to gain confidence in my ability to talk to others. I was then able to transfer to my relationship with Rachel.
When you’re in a romantic relationship with your partner, it’s essential to know how, when, and what you should communicate. But often overlooked is that your partner cannot be the only person you interact with as they can be overwhelmed. That’s why these 5 ways to improve communication in relationships isn’t just useful for your romantic partners. Still, they’re essential tools that you can use when building close male friendships as well.
Understand that we are a product of our parent’s communication style.
Something I’ll never forget was during graduate school, a professor explained what happens when young teachers are overworked and overwhelmed. She said, “If you’re struggling during your lesson plans or unit planning, the first thing you’ll go back to is how you were taught.” And it made sense. I might attempt to teach writing in a way that I believe is authentic, but if students are struggling and I feel lost as an educator, I’ll revert back to the five-paragraph essay because that’s how I was taught.
The same thing goes for our forms of communication and our families. Our communication skills revert back to how we grew up, the lessons we learned throughout the years. And it’s important to be mindful of that because that has a direct effect on your communication style.
So if you’re looking for a way to improve your communication in relationships, you must look at where you began. What lessons did your parents show you when they spoke with each other? It’ll be like going to a buffet, take the skills you want and leave the others behind.
One thing to remember, though, if your bad habits are the result of how you grew up, that’s not an excuse to continue perpetuating the problem. You need to acknowledge where your communication problem comes from and then put in the work to make the changes necessary to build a healthier relationship with your partner and friends.
Premarital counseling does not mean your relationship is in trouble.
Anyone who’s visited this site knows that I’m a huge believer in therapy, counseling, and speaking up about mental health issues. That’s why it probably would come as no surprise for me to tell you that my wife (then fiance) entered premarital counseling a couple of months before our wedding. It was one of the best decisions we made as a couple as a way to improve communication in our relationship.
Before I get too far ahead, I think it’s important to discuss a significant misconception. Just because you’re in premarital counseling does not mean that your relationship is in trouble. In fact, I’d say the opposite: some studies report that premarital counseling “decreases the likelihood of divorce by 50 percent.” Couples who go through the process of premarital counseling have a 30% higher rate of marital happiness than those who do not.
Topics covered in premarital counseling sessions include discussions around sex, finances, and in-laws. Each of these conversations can be difficult, and it’s often a good thing to have an unbiased intermediary to help guide you and your partner through. Marriage is a big step, and if you want your marriage to be successful, it’s integral to have these talks now before your three years in, and everything is on fire.
Some churches and synagogues already require you to go through premarital counseling, so you may already have a couple sessions scheduled. That being said, the most important thing to remember about premarital counseling is that it’s about growing your relationship with your partner: it’s not about winning or losing. The health of your relationship is number one.
I’ve written about my difficulties in communication in relationships before a couple of times, but the greatest thing premarital counseling has done for me was teach me how to be a better communicator. Instead of the silent treatment, I’m more capable of having a direct dialogue where I express my boundaries, and Rachel reveals hers. This eliminates any mind-reading or resentment that could quickly build up. If you’re looking for a way to improve communication in your relationship, reaching out to a trained professional might be a good start.
Allow yourself to be vulnerable.
Male vulnerability continues to be a problem, especially when it comes to communication. We know that to adhere to traditionally masculine norms, you should bottle your emotions. Men are told that no one cares about their feelings and that masculinity is dependent on being the “strong” one in your relationship. Dudefluencer likes to call ‘em as we see ‘em, and that’s bullshit.
Strong men believe in positive masculinity, which directly relies on men being vulnerable. What that means is that instead of bottling up their emotions, men should take the opportunity to communicate with their partners (and friends) openly and honestly.
Take, for example, this study of men in Australia, many of the participants expressed a desire for more men’s support groups while also struggling with conforming to traditional masculine norms while in session. This tells me that even though men have a desire to have close relationships with others, there’s an external pressure that we’ve put on ourselves every time we open up because men have been taught that masculinity doesn’t equal vulnerability.
So how does being more vulnerable improve communications in relationships? Think about the fact that you chose this person to spend your life with, like your whole entire life, and remember that you both are in this together. It’s no longer just a you-thing, it’s we (or us)-thing. When you’re depressed, when you’re unhappy, your partner is the one who is supposed to be by your side to lift you up. Hiding how you feel from them only hurts your relationship and can lead to built-up resentment over time.
Make sure you have male friends too.
On the other hand, you also need to make sure you have an influential collective of male friends as well. If you only communicate with your partner about your feelings, your relationship can quickly devolve into one that’s more apt for a therapist-patient than a romantic one. And in a relationship where we want our partners to think we’re sexy, it’s hard to do once that shift has set in.
That’s why it’s all the more important that men have a group of close guy friends that they can talk to. The importance of male friendship has been understated for a long time, and how those relationships can benefit romantic relationships are often overlooked. Men are more likely to be vulnerable in spaces where they feel safe, which tend to be amongst other men who are opening up. In turn, those men gain the confidence to be vulnerable in their relationships, which leads to healthier and happier long-term romantic relationships.
There’s always a risk of being vulnerable around other people. I get it, I’ve been there before. Not every romantic partner you’re with is emotionally mature enough to have real conversations about their feelings, and sometimes they will let you down. And the same will go for some of your male friends. That leaves you with a choice: attempt to teach them how you need them to communicate with you or seek out a friend or partner that is more in tune with your needs.
What that doesn’t mean is that no one cares about how you feel or where you’re coming from. People do care, the right people do. Find those people in your life and rely on them so you can improve your communication in relationships. It will feel like night and day when you see the difference.
Being right doesn’t mean you’re right.
Before reading this section, just take a listen to this clip from Mike Birbiglia’s incredible special My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.
I’m a competitive person and most definitely a sore loser. That means I’m an absolute pain in the ass to get into arguments with because there are so few times that I think I’m wrong. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve realized something, just because you’re right doesn’t mean you’re right. And one of the best ways to improve communication in relationships is to understand that concept.
The idea is similar to that of picking which hill you want to die on. Most of our arguments aren’t that important anyway, so why is it so important that we think that we’re right?
Part of that importance comes from wanting to feel validated. If we’re seen as being right, then our point of view is valid, and we feel like we have been seen. Our partners and friends feel the same way about their points of view. And if you’re as stubborn as I am, it can be challenging to concede any ground in an argument. Remember, though, being right doesn’t always mean you’re doing the right thing.
Sometimes a discussion requires you to tell your partner a hard truth (or the other way around), and sometimes it might be best to just keep your opinion to yourself if it’s going to harm your relationship. In our increasingly political landscape, I’ve recognized that Rachel and I don’t really agree on the methods of how things should get done, but we have the same end goals. And that’s what is important.
Arguments should not have to be about who is right and who is wrong, but what is best for your relationship. You can practice the next time you’re on Facebook, and someone posts a stupid status: is this argument going to help or harm my relationship with said person. Here’s also another great resource from Psychology Today that lists a few other ways to have discussions with a person who is always “right.”
Give each other feels checks.
The next two examples on my list are just little things that I’ve picked up along the way that have improved my communication skills with Rachel. The first off is something that we like to call “Feels Checks,” and it’s just as simple as it sounds. Sometimes if I’m looking distant or out of it, Rachel simply asks, “Feels check?” And I give her a number 1-10 letting her know how I’m doing. A 1 is the absolute worst, 10 means I’m in fucking ecstasy.
The benefit to something like this is that it allows for your partner to get a good gauge on how you’re doing, mentally or physically. Sometimes after a long day at work, I’m not ready to talk about what’s been happening, so by giving Rachel a feels check number, I’m still allowing her in. Of course, I need to speak to her about what’s bothering me eventually. It makes for a natural form of communication that’s quick and painless.
When Rachel and I first started dating, we spent an entire evening on the deck of her Alexandria apartment, asking each other the “36 Questions That Lead to Love.” While some of the questions provided no new insights, others did. And most importantly, these questions provided us with another exercise in one of the easiest ways to improve communication in relationships: listening.
There’s an improv coach who said that to truly listen to means that “you listen long enough to change your mind.” Too often, we only hear so we can respond. So as a way to be a better boyfriend or partner, listening is key to helping communication within a relationship. By asking and responding to questions, not only are you building a stronger bond between you and your partner, but you’re also learning about who they are, what they want, and where they’ve come from.
Trust me, dudes, you need to listen more.
If you enjoyed this, be sure to check out some of my other pieces here on Dudefluencer: