I grew up watching Oprah and Sex and the City, so I’ve always heard that communication is one of the most important aspects of any relationship, especially romantic relationships. Time and time again, experts have found that it’s essential to devote time and energy to communicating with your partner.
Of course, communication in relationships has changed over the last few decades, thanks to the popularity of the internet, the ubiquity of iPhones, and even the ever-present dating apps. (Hi, Tinder!) All of this can be either good or bad depending on how you approach it.
First, let’s think about what “communication issues” really are. We often view troubles in our relationship as a lack of communication, but that’s not entirely true, says Racine Henry, PhD, a licensed family and marriage therapist at Sankofa Therapy.
Henry points out that the problem is seldom a lack of communication; instead, in most relationships, we’re communicating about the wrong things. “It’s impossible to not communicate, [but] often, couples don’t realize that … they aren’t having the right conversations,” Henry says.
“When couples talk without communicating, they are just trading insults or attempting to convince the other partner of their own feelings. There’s no understanding, no attempt to hear each other out, and/or honest feelings aren’t being expressed,” she explains. In other words, it’s not just about talking: It’s about expressing the right things and actually listening to what your partner’s expressing.
Unfortunately, if you don’t approach it thoughtfully, these common communication errors can be exacerbated the constant methods of “communication.”
One thing’s for sure: The old rules have changed. We need to approach communication in relationships in a way that considers the impact of technology.
How Technology Often Clashes With Communication in Relationships
Technology can be super helpful when it comes to staying in contact with friends and family, and it can be great if you have a long-distance relationship. But there is, of course, a time and a place for everything.
Henry points out that social media might exacerbate the existing problems within one’s relationship. “In romantic relationships, these new methods of communication and access add meaning to conversations that can be disastrous when used inappropriately,” she says. “In relationships where trust, stability, and/or pride are issues, frequent communication can lead to more discord.”
Henry adds that the constant expectation of communication can also become a problem; because it’s easy to communicate several times a day, we might feel upset if our partner doesn’t reach out several times a day.
To identify some common pitfalls when it comes to technology and communication in relationships, HealthyWay spoke to relationships and sex coach Colby Marie Z. She says that she often sees couples who rely so much on social media to communicate that they seldom really speak face to face. Being in contact is not the same as communicating, and that face-to-face contact is important.
“The vast majority of the messages we send and receive during the communication process are non-verbal,” Colby says. “We communicate through the tone and inflection of our voice, eye contact, touch, and body language. All of those messages get completely lost when we’re just writing and reading words.”
“Being in contact is not the same as communicating, and that face-to-face contact is important.”
“Being in contact is not the same as communicating, and that face-to-face contact is important.”
Colby recommends using text messages to just check in with your partner or to send quick reminders to them. More complex conversations should be reserved for face-to-face communication (or something like FaceTime or Skype if meeting up isn’t possible).
“Communication also involves feedback. As we’re communicating with someone else, we are able to get feedback about how our messages are being interpreted. If someone furrows their brow, for example, they may not be understanding what we’re saying and we can alter how we’re communicating based on that feedback,” she explains. This can also prevent you from saying something unnecessarily hurtful, as you’re directly seeing the impact it has on your partner. For this reason, face-to-face or video contact is best for potentially serious matters.
“I always advise to never have conflict over text!” Colby says. “More often than not, it continues the conflict loop rather than supporting a resolution.”
Colby also strongly advises against bashing your partner on social media when you’re fighting. While you might want to vent, keep that venting private or it can ultimately harm your relationship. “It demonstrates a lack of respect not only for your partner but for the relationship as a whole,” she says. “It decreases feelings of safety and trust within the relationship and can significantly hinder any potential for future vulnerability that is essential in maintaining relationship intimacy.”
How Technology Can Benefit Communication in Relationships
Of course, it’s totally possible—and advisable!—to use technology to your advantage when it comes to your relationship. Technology has made it possible for us to meet new partners we wouldn’t otherwise, which is pretty incredible. It also helps us stay in contact with partners who live out of town. In these cases, technology can not only be used to improve your relationship, it can be essential to it.
If you’re not always able to spend time with your partner, a phone call or a Skype session can help you sustain a bond. “The good thing about technology is it’s readily accessible. There’s no excuse to not speak often or to miss one another,” Henry says. “When partners have physical distance, technology can be what allows the relationship to continue uninterrupted.”
When it comes to communication in relationships, frequent affirmation is key. Technology can help you remind your partner that they’re loved. Sending them voice notes or videos or tagging them in memes online is a great way to remind them that you’re thinking about them during the day. When your partner is going through a tough time, text messages are a great way to let them know that you care without intruding on their space.
How to Know if You’re Communicating Poorly
Most of us are aware that communication is important, but many of us struggle to recognize when we’re communicating poorly, Henry says.
“Common errors when communicating in a romantic relationship are not communicating about the real problems, talking without actually communicating, and repeating unhealthy communication patterns without awareness,” Henry explains. “Unhealthy communication patterns include yelling, name calling, put downs, and other behavior which only further injures the relationship,” she adds.
One tricky thing about misunderstandings is that you don’t always know that there’s a misunderstanding. You might think you’re communicating well while your partner thinks you’re talking about something completely different. So how do you know if you’re not communicating well?
“If you feel like you’re just spinning in a loop—having the same conflict over and over or you and your partner cannot seem to understand one another—it may be an indicator that you could work on your relationship communication,” says Colby. Colby also suggests you ask yourself whether you know how your partner is feeling, either from what they say or from their body language.
How to Sort out Conflict or Communicate About Sensitive Issues
Conflict in any relationship is inevitable. To grow as people—and for the benefit of your relationship itself—it’s important to sort out this conflict in a mature, calm manner. This includes dedicating time to improving communication in your relationships, both in romantic relationships and not.
Colby recommends people wait to talk about a conflict until they’ve cooled off and calmed down. You might want to count to 10 during an argument, or you might even want to take a few days. “If you need time, it is important to communicate that to your partner, otherwise it might be interpreted as a lack of care or compassion,” Colby suggests. “Something along the lines of, ‘I care about you and this relationship, and I won’t be able to give this conversation my best effort right now.’”
While you’re cooling off, remind yourself of happy times with your partner. This can help you ease the hurt and put the conflict into perspective. Colby suggests listening to love songs or looking at happy pictures of you two as a couple.
When you’re ready to approach the conflict, try to communicate in a quiet space where there aren’t distractions—put your phone on silent! Also, try to make sure your internal environment is calm, Colby suggests. “If you’re tired, moody, have a long to-do list you can’t stop thinking about, pressed for time, in pain, etc., it can make it difficult for you to be fully present in the conversation,” she says.
Sometimes you need to have sensitive conversations via telephone—perhaps you’re in a long-distance relationship or you’re away from your partner for a while. If you have to discuss issues with your partner over the phone or via video communication, Henry suggests you set some ground rules or boundaries. She suggests taking notes of things you want to respond to during a phone call or Skype session so that you don’t interrupt your partner while they’re talking.
“When texting, you have to be considerate of the words you use because there is less non-verbal communication than a face-to-face conversation,” Henry notes. “You have the chance to edit and thoroughly express what you feel without the subconscious word vomit that may happen in person. Think texts through. Don’t hit send until you proofread a few times and can ensure that you are saying what is necessary without adding unnecessary and potentially hurtful statements,” she suggests.
Working at the skill of communication in relationships is tough, but it’s necessary. While the world adapts to social media, it’s important that your communication skills do too—for the benefit of yourself, your romantic relationships, and other kinds of relationships, too.