Relationships are a part of life. One could even argue that relationships are one of the biggest parts of our lives. The desire for connection with another human being is literally wired into our DNA. Recent research has shown that the experience of loneliness even has negative impacts on our physical health, raising our risk for heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, dementia, etc. But I probably don’t need to spend much time convincing you that relationships are important. There is no doubt that you are impacted by them (or the lack thereof) every day.
So, we all know that relationships are important. But, I bet most of us also know that they can be incredibly complicated and difficult at times. The thing is, you don’t have to be lacking in relationships in order to experience loneliness. Many of us know the pain of feeling incredibly lonely, despite being surrounded by others or in the same room as our partner/spouse. We don’t just need proximity in our relationships. We need connection. We need to feel fully heard, seen, and understood. But we aren’t often taught how to do that well.
Each relationship is unique and, therefore, often needs its own individual assessment and treatment when things get really rocky. But there are a few things that help improve all relationships: communication and emotional connection.
As a general rule, we don’t get a lot of education on how to communicate well. Which is sad, because we will have to rely on this skill to navigate the world and relationships for the rest of our lives. Most of us fumble through, do our best, and try to mimic what we’ve seen, but we often run into issues with this in our relationships. Here are a few things to check the pulse on communication in your relationships, along with some skills you might find helpful:
Are you communicating enough?
A lot of times, there isn’t enough communication happening in our relationships. We might expect our partners to be able to read our minds or anticipate what we want/need. But it doesn’t take long to figure out that most humans are not very good at reading minds and this dynamic creates a lot of disappointment and frustration. It’s really important that we are honest with our partners about what we are feeling and what our needs/expectations are. This can be really hard for some of us but it is essential for a long-lasting relationship.
Are you using blame, shame, or judgment? (AKA: are you fighting fair?)
“This is all your fault.” “If you just did ____, we wouldn’t have any problems.” “You are such a _______.” “Only a ____ type of person would do/say that.”
The use of blame, shame, and judgment are some of the most common pitfalls of communication. These types of statements tend to wound, create defensiveness, and derail or shut down conversations. It is our responsibility to find ways to communicate our feelings and needs in ways that are respectful. One of the easiest ways to assess whether we are doing this is to ask ourselves if our sentences start with “I” or “You.” You statements tend to be blaming and shaming. I statements tend to be assertive and respectful.
Ex: Blaming/shaming: “You are so selfish. I can’t believe you felt like you could just make that decision without even asking me.”
Ex: Assertive/Respectful: “I feel hurt and not considered when you make decisions without asking for my opinion.
As you practice communicating respectfully and assertively, you can try using this formula:
I feel ______ when you ________ because __________. In the future, I hope that you will ______________ ( state your needs/wants).
You won’t always need a formula and it may feel clunky at first, but it can be helpful as you are practicing a new way of communicating.
Are you listening well?
Being a good communicator is often more about listening than talking. Our relationships benefit greatly from intentional listening. But how do we know if we are listening well?
Try to eliminate distractions when listening. Put your phone down, pause what you’re doing, and make eye contact as the other person shares.
Use nonverbal cues to communicate understanding and a desire to listen—I.e. head nods, mm hmms, mirroring their body language or emotional state when appropriate, waiting until they finish sharing before you talk, etc.
Communicate an intention/desire to understand them by reflecting what you have just heard to make sure that it’s accurate:
“You feel _______ when _________ because ________. Did I hear that right?”
Validate their feelings. i.e. “I can see how that might have made you feel that way.”
Emotional connection means feeling in touch with someone we care about. This is a very dynamic and evolving part of our relationships. It is also the #1 predictor of whether a relationship will last. So, how do we foster emotional connection in our relationships? Here are some ways to start:
1. By being available when the other person needs us. Sometimes life is crazy and this will require some negotiation, but it’s incredibly important to feel that we can depend on our partner/friend/family member to be accessible when we really need them
2. By being responsive to each other’s emotional needs. How often are you checking in on each other’s emotional state? Do you know how to respond in ways that are comforting to each other? How “in tune” are you with each other?
3. By being engaged in each other’s lives and interests. How often do you share and listen intently to what’s going on in your lives? Do you show up for each other’s big life events? Do you express interest in understanding each other’s passions/hobbies/likes/dislikes/etc.?
4. By using good communication skills that create a sense of being fully seen, heard, and understood by each other.
5. By showing affection. Try to be intentional with small ways of physically “turning toward” each other through hugs, holding hands, putting an arm around their shoulder, greeting with a kiss, cuddling, etc.
6. By playing together. How often do you go out and do something fun together? How often are you laughing together?
Healthy, fulfilling relationships don’t just happen. They require a lot of time, work, and intention. I hope that some of these basic communication and emotional connection building skills will help you start moving toward experiencing more fulfillment in your relationships.