Conflicts can help us gauge the health of a relationship. Note that the presence of conflict isn’t a fatal sign on its own. We can learn more from how couples deal with conflict, and how partners treat each other as individuals.
Exercising good communication skills with your partner is necessary to keep a strong and healthy relationship. This also helps determine if an argument pulls a couple apart or brings them closer together. That’s why couples counseling equips people with ways to resolve conflict while nurturing the relationship. It takes work, but it’s a shared burden.
In this guide, we’ll highlight the best communication exercises for couples 一 recommended by therapists.
How can couples learn to communicate better?
Before we get into the exercises, we need to know what effective and poor communication looks like. Let’s start with the negative patterns that create unnecessary tension.
Couples should be aware of these habits when working through issues and avoid them at all costs. Gottman Method couples therapy calls them the Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.
Let’s break them down.
Criticism targets a partner’s character. It’s an ad hominem attack 一 a critique that places the blame on a person’s core being, raising the emotional stakes during an argument.
Naturally, these personal attacks can lead to guilt, shame, or resentment. Victims of criticism are often left feeling rejected and isolated. While a valid complaint can focus on a partner’s actions, a critique sees who they are as the issue.
Contempt takes many forms, from sarcasm and eye-rolling to mockery and name-calling. At a basic level, it’s an expression of superiority meant to reduce a partner’s worth.
Contempt doesn’t just indicate a lack of respect, it’s the greatest predictor of divorce in married couples. Dr. John Gottman describes it as “sulfuric acid for love”. It erodes one’s admiration for their partner, making any sort of healthy connection impossible.
Research suggests that contempt is so destructive, it can make victims of it more vulnerable to infections like colds and flu.
Being defensive is a common reaction to the first horseman, criticism. While partners can respond to unfair accusations, defensiveness looks for excuses for valid concerns. It positions the offending party as the victim.
A defensive partner refuses to take responsibility for their actions. This forces the non-defensive partner to either escalate the argument or backing down, tossing their concerns aside.
Stonewalling is often a response to contempt. When all three of the other horsemen are present, stonewalling is usually close behind. It’s the ultimate act of conflict avoidance. A stonewalling partner will withdraw from a confrontation, shut down, and stop responding altogether.
As the name suggests, people stonewall to build a barrier between themselves and their partners. It can feel like the only way to stem the stress they’re experiencing. Although it can take a while to form the habit, stonewalling is hard to stop once it starts.
In the next section, we’ll talk about communication exercises to deal with criticism, contempt, and defensiveness. Managing these three habits reduces the likelihood of stonewalling, which we’ll end with.
Strengthen your relationship and marriage using these communication exercises for couples
Healthy communication involves positive expression, active listening, and being receptive to each other’s needs. Communication exercises use all three to help partners feel supported and validated in their concerns.
1. A soft start-up
Criticism is a character assault, and the best way to avoid that is to keep the focus on the relationship issue at hand. A soft start-up can help couples raise legitimate concerns without assigning blame or putting partners on the defensive.
That starts with using “I” statements.
An “I” statement details how you feel. It removes the accusatory tone that “you” statements often come with. The aim here is to help your partner understand your perspective, and invite them to collaborate on a solution.
A softer approach can deescalate conflicts before they get a chance to heat up. It lowers the stakes, keeping arguments on topic without getting personal.
2. Clarifying statements
Partners won’t always be receptive to soft start-ups. Some partners react defensively as a default. Others may just be wary of a new approach, especially to a long-standing issue.
Dr. Julie Gottman recommends putting them at ease with clarifying statements.
“One of the first things I do is say ‘Honey, I’m not trying to criticize you here or put you down. . .I really do care about you. I just want to be closer to you.’ So what you’re doing is giving a little reassurance.”
These statements make it clear that you’re trying to connect without falling into old patterns like criticizing. They require a level of vulnerability, but they encourage your partner to be vulnerable in return.
3. Developing a Culture of Appreciation
Contempt is the hardest horseman to come to grips with. Even in its “subtle” forms, a contemptuous partner uses it to dominate the relationship and maintain superiority. It’s a toxic cycle, and couples can fall into it without realizing it.
A culture of appreciation keeps contempt from manifesting in the first place. Couples focused on mutual appreciation have an easier time preserving respect, fondness, and admiration in their relationships.
The Gottman Method offers two communication exercises for developing that culture.
4. Affirmations of fondness
Positive affirmations are simple phrases that highlight what couples admire in each other. They can be written or spoken, so long as they express genuine fondness for a partner. The more specific, the better.
“I like you” is a vague statement that keeps the spotlight on your feelings. “I like that you___” focuses on your partner’s qualities and affirms their value in the relationship.
5. Expressing feelings and needs
People lash out with contempt even when they think they’re being genuine. Statements like “You’re so selfish” or “Why can’t you be responsible like me” may express an underlying emotion, but they still hurt the person on the receiving end.
Expressing your needs positively helps you say what you feel without judgment or resentment. Examples of positive expression include:
“I miss spending time together on weekends.”
“I know you’re confident, but when you take risks like that I start worrying.”
“I want us to move on but I need an apology from you before we do.”
6. Practicing responsibility
In a relationship, defensiveness is more than making excuses. It’s a covert way to blame someone for bringing forward their concerns. If someone hurts you, then plays the victim, there’s no room to make your feelings heard.
To avoid this, partners should practice taking responsibility for their actions, however small. When couples practice responsibility together, there’s less blame to throw around. When a couple gets to a place of accountability, they can start working on the real solutions.
What couples should do during an argument
Arguments happen in a relationship. Gottman Method Couples Therapy even encourages it in early sessions as a way to teach productive arguing. But they can be destructive when done “wrong”. So what should couples do in the heat of conflict?
Putting yourself in your partner’s shoes is a powerful way to connect with what they’re feeling. When we’re in our own heads, it’s hard to understand why people react to us the way they do. When couples practice empathy, they share the burden of protecting each other emotionally.
- Search for the root of the argument
According to Dr. John Gottman, two-thirds of all arguments are perpetual. Without getting to the root of the conflict, we end up having the same arguments over and over again. To break the cycle, couples need to explore the insecurities that underscore most of their tension and start the conversation there.
What couples should do after an argument
Arguments, however normal, are still exhausting. The moments immediately after one can be a raw time. To avoid escalating matters, partners need to approach each other with care and patience here.
There are ways to talk about an argument without creating another one. A helpful exercise is to sit down together and take turns outlining your feelings. Give each other space to talk without interruption or rebuttal. Debriefing is about finding common ground after a fight.
- Break the tension with something light-hearted
Humor is one of the most disarming communication tools you have. Lightening the mood after an argument doesn’t mean the issue is gone, but it shows your partner that you’re still in it together. Laughter eases the tension in our bodies, which builds up when ignored. Helping each other destress is a sign of care and commitment that rarely goes unnoticed.
Is your partner stonewalling you instead of communicating?
Generally, stonewalling is a stress response. That doesn’t make it less frustrating when a partner does it, but it gives us a window into a possible solution.
- Take a break then come back
A stonewaller will walk away mid-conflict if they’re physiologically flooded. Chasing them to continue the argument will only aggravate both of you. It’s best to address stonewalling when things are relatively peaceful.
Use this time to negotiate an appropriate way to handle flooding. If your partner feels the urge to withdraw, for example, you can agree on a phrase that signals they need a break.
Just having that as an option can make stonewalling less likely. Sometimes, 20 minutes to self-soothe is all a partner needs. Like some of the communication exercises above, it’s a silent expression of care that speaks volumes.
Conflicts are unavoidable in marriages and in any relationship but this can be settled through good and proper communication. If you think you need a refresher on how to interact, understand, and communicate with each other better as couples, our therapists are here to help. Schedule an appointment and let’s catch up.