Here’s how to communicate better in your relationship

The past year has been tough on relationships – how can you spend so much time together and still not ‘talk’? It’s time to show your relationship some love...
Photography: Louisa Parry

No matter how well you love and know each other, you can’t read your partner’s mind, which is why the key to a healthy relationship is honest and open communication. Yet some subjects can leave us tongue-tied. Money app Acorns found 68% of us would rather confess our weight than our savings (there’s no shame in either, FYI), while Tilney, an investment service, found sexual and mental health were harder to bring up than death! But vocalising tough topics is crucial. ‘A conversation can create a sense of “we’re in this together” and help you to arrive at solutions that suit you both,’ says psychologist Sarah Rozenthuler, author of How To Have Meaningful Conversations*. So what is the secret art of communicating better in your relationship?

Tough topic: money

A fifth of people believe hidden money troubles are the biggest barrier to love, says research by YouGov and Lloyds Bank. ‘Money – which is responsible for our very survival – can trigger fear, frustration and shame,’ says Sarah. ‘But if you don’t talk about your finances, worry and anxiety fester.’

Get talking: If it’s your partner’s spending at stake, collect facts to back up your concerns (ie, an unpaid bill, a receipt, and so on), then wait for the right moment to bring it up – when they aren’t tired, hungry, stressed or have been drinking. A natural conversation-starter could be when a household bill arrives: ‘I’d like to talk about how we’re handling our finances. Is now a good time?’ Match your postures – both sit or both stand – and avoid shaming them with an accusatory, ‘you’ve spent XYZ!’, which could make them shut down. Instead, acknowledge your part: ‘“I could have brought this up before and I didn’t, and I’m keen to find a way forward,”’ suggests Sarah. If your partner gets reactive, hit pause: ‘I know this is difficult to talk about.’ Fighting for air-time can lead to a full-blown argument, so let them respond without jumping in with judgements and advice.

If it’s you with the money issue, bite the bullet and say: ‘I’m embarrassed about this, but I need to tell you about my finances.’ Rather than blurting out a figure, establish the context that led to the debt. Then explain where you’re at: ‘I now owe this much, and the interest is this. I have some ideas on what to do (ie, not spending any more on credit), but I need your help and understanding.’ The relief you’ll feel from sharing will be huge. And a caring partner will likely feel bad that you’ve been shouldering the burden. If your other half is good with money, they could help you plan to get back on track.

couples talking, arguments, separation, talking, discussion

Tough topic: resentment

Ever wondered why something like your partner not loading the dishwasher can make you question the entire relationship? Meet resentment. ‘Daily frustrations can become, “I do everything, therefore they don’t value me,”’ says Ruth Kudzi, host of the Conversations To Help You Thrive podcast. ‘When we don’t speak up, resentments are amplified.’

Get talking: Don’t list everything they haven’t done during the past six months. Rather, follow these three steps. One: describe the facts, whether small (‘there are clothes all over our bedroom floor’) or large (‘you missed the kids’ bedtime every night this week’). Two: explain how it makes you feel. Three: detail how they can help – ‘I’d feel happier if you put stuff in the washing basket/came home by 7pm three nights a week.’ This is about them changing a behaviour, not changing themselves (which is a bit like asking someone to grow more hair!). If your partner raises an issue with something you’re doing, it’s natural to be defensive. But remember that they’re simply communicating ‘you’re doing something that’s impacting me’. ‘They’re not saying they don’t care about you,’ says Ruth. If you realise there is substance behind it, discuss how you could behave differently.

Tough topic: health

Opening up about a personal health issue, particularly if it comes out of the blue, is undeniably emotional. While there’s no guarantee as to how the other person will react, you can work with each other’s vulnerabilities.

Get talking: Whether you’re trying to chat about your partner’s health or get them to see a doctor, clamming up is common. If you’re worried about unhealthy habits, present them with the bigger picture: that you love them and you’re worried they might get ill. For mental-health concerns, ask, ‘What kind of thoughts are you having?’ Or voice your observations: ‘Is something wearing you down?’ When they do open up, listen and be receptive. Even if they’ve received a diagnosis, many people find it awkward to discuss. ‘Reassure them that you’re just concerned,’ suggests Sarah. A useful opener is to state facts: ‘You were diagnosed with diabetes two months ago now.’

When it comes to your own health, it can depend on how long you’ve been together. If you’re early doors and want to bring up a long-term condition, such as Crohn’s disease or anxiety, mention it during a walk, when you’re both relaxed. The goal is to simply share what the condition is, and how it may affect you and the times you’re together. An example for anxiety: ‘Sometimes I might not want to go out, but it’s not because I don’t want to see you.’ Then explain how best they can help you. In long-term relationships, a surprise change in health – for instance, finding a lump – requires more delicate treatment. ‘Start with, “I’ve got something sensitive to talk about. Do you have time to chat?”’ suggests Sarah. And work out what you need. ‘It might be extra help with chores or attending appointments together,’ she says. ‘Communication only becomes problematic when we have unmet needs.’

couples talking, arguments, separation, talking, discussion

Tough topic: sex

More than half of Brits refuse to talk about sex with their partner, a 2020 health report found. For Relate counsellor Peter Saddington, one of the biggest elephants in the bedroom is sexual frequency, or lack of it. ‘Unless you talk about it, the other person is likely to (mis)interpret it as, “I don’t turn you on any more,”’ he says.

Get talking: Talking turn-ons is easiest in the sack. But bigger issues are best discussed away from the bedroom (because you’ll feel less vulnerable). Use ‘I’ statements to avoid criticism: ‘I feel like we haven’t had sex in a while and I really enjoyed it last time.’ When couples do start talking about sex, Peter often sees a pattern. ‘One partner saying: I really fancy you, but I’m knackered. And the other agreeing that, yes, they’re knackered, too!’ he reassures. Use this to discuss how to make sex more likely. ‘What’s important,’ says Peter, ‘is to agree to create periods of couple time and almost book them in (ie, Saturday nights).’ And share details about what you like: ‘I feel most into sex in the morning,’ or ‘I like it when you initiate sex with words/touch’ Then, during sex, use positive encouragement, such as, ‘I really like it when you…’ or ‘Maybe we could try that thing we saw on Netflix last night.’ It’s time to talk your way into all sorts of fun thoughts, not press each other’s triggers. Enjoy!

Psst! If there’s a row brewing…

Try ‘active listening’. Let them finish a sentence, then repeat back, ‘It seems like you’re saying XYZ’. This slows down the conversation, enabling you both to gather your thoughts, not push each other’s buttons.

*Watkins Publishing.