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Communicating Better in Intimate Relationships

shutterstock_235865923If you feel like you’re having trouble opening up to your partner or other intimates in your life, or if you keep running into communication roadblocks and misunderstandings, this post is for you.1)  Know how you feel before you try to communicate it.

What I mean is, know the underlying feelings.  We might be angry on the surface, but typically, there are other feelings beneath that (hurt, fear, disappointment.)  So if we only communicate the anger, then we (and our partners) are missing most of the equation.

Also, by expressing the softer, more vulnerable emotions like hurt, we create more empathy in our partner.  That person is more likely to want to help us.

2)  Make sure you feel safe enough to take the risk of communicating.

Think about whether the person you want to share with will be responsive or will be cutting and use what you’ve said against you.  Sometimes you’re not opening up, and it’s for a good reason.  Your instincts are protecting you.

If you’re a person with a history of abuse and mistrust in relationships, your instincts might always tell you no.  So you might need to get a second opinion on this one (for example, from a friend, therapist, support group, etc.)

When you’ve determined the person is a safe choice, it will still feel risky to you.  Being vulnerable is always a risk because none of us are assured a positive outcome in our intimate communications.  But approach it as an ongoing dialogue, not a one-off conversation.  It’s the start of something new that can, over time, yield enormous benefits, chief among them that you won’t feel so alone anymore.

3)  Once you’ve decided to take the risk, start off the conversation with that.

As in, tell the person, “This is really hard for me.  I’m trying something new, and I might not say everything right.  I’m afraid that you won’t hear me, or that you’ll be angry…” (you’ll need to figure out the script that best fits your experience.)

The reason I advise this is because it creates a certain expectation and obligation in the listener.  That person will be disarmed, and will immediately empathize.

Also, it will establish a vulnerable tone right from the beginning, and from there, it’s harder for you to retreat into defensiveness and old habits.  You’ve already done the hardest part just by naming that it is difficult.

4)  Focus on congruence between your verbal and non-verbal cues.

If you’re saying “I’m scared”, you want to say it in a tone that matches.  Saying “I’m scared” in a tone that’s angry and hostile will not garner the response you’re hoping for, though you might later be confused (“I told him I was scared and he still got mad!”).

When verbal and non-verbal are not in alignment, people pay attention to non-verbal.

5)  Write a script.

Literally, write it out.  Then you have something to refer to if you get stuck, or if it’s not going well.  That will help you stay focused.  You don’t have to read it exactly (or maybe you’ll want to.)

If you’ve already prefaced the conversation with “This is hard for me”, then the other person is not likely to be judgmental–unless it turns out you thought that person was safe and now you’re learning that they’re not.  That’s valuable information for the future.

Being able to share our needs and feelings with others is a key life and mental health skill.  The good news is, like all skills, they get stronger with practice.

Couple talking photo available from Shutterstock

Communicating Better in Intimate Relationships

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2015). Communicating Better in Intimate Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 19, 2020, from


Last updated: 14 Mar 2015
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