Effective communication skills can be challenging even in the best of times: tone of voice, choice of words, use of technology vs. face-to-face to deliver the message, emotional circumstances, etc., all affect the message sent and received. When you add to the mix a partner who is experiencing mental illness and a partner who has been dealing with the fallout of the illness, it can be all but impossible to have a conversation that gets anywhere.

Regardless of whether your partner is healthy or ill, there are going to be times when you need them to understand your point of view and to contribute to resolving an issue, whether it’s something as mundane as whose turn it is to take out the trash to something as serious as your partner remaining medication-compliant for managing their illness.

But as previously mentioned, how the message is communicated can go a long way. If your partner hears, “Do it or else!” (i.e., an ultimatum), your chances of success plummet. If your partner hears, “This is what I need from you, and this is what’s acceptable and what’s not,” (i.e., a boundary) everyone is more likely to be on the same page.

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) has an entire module dedicated to what’s called “interpersonal effectiveness.” In other words, it teaches skills on “how to get what you want from someone else, while still remaining friends.” Christy Matta has an entire blog dedicated to DBT here on PsychCentral if you’re interested in learning more, but these five basic essentials from DBT that I’ll describe below can really make a difference:

  1. Choose an appropriate time and have an opener to the conversation. You probably have had the experience of someone asking you something really important at the absolute wrong time, or of someone demanding something from you, seemingly out of the blue. How’d that go? Not well, most likely. Choose a time where both you and your partner are not in a hurry, not distracted by other things (including technology), and have set the tone for a chat. Next, start with a soft opening, such as “How are you today?” or “I have been looking forward to talking with you about some things–is now a good time?” Using these strategies also shows respect for your partner; they may not be in the right frame of mind to be receptive to what you want to say, and this gives them an opportunity to say so.
  2. Describe what the problem or issue is. This is where it is imperative to remain factual and give examples, but not become defensive or accusatory. The simpler the description, the better.
  3. Express your feelings and opinions about the problem. Here’s where the part about “boundaries vs. ultimatums” comes into play. An ultimatum would come out as, “You should/should not,” “You have to,” or “You can’t.” A more appropriate expression of feelings and opinions, in which you are setting boundaries, would be stated as “I want” or “I don’t want.” For example: “I want you to help me with cleaning the house,” is more effective than, “You should be doing much more to help me keep this house clean–all you do is lie around all day, watching tv!”
  4. Assert your stance about the issue. Again, this is good boundary-setting. As they say in the DBT Skills Training Manual*, “Assume that others cannot read your mind” (p. 125). The objective is to both state clearly what you want, which may include saying no. To use the example from the previous tip, being specific helps: “Every day, I want you to wash the dishes, hang up the wet towels, and put your dirty clothes in the basket.” When you do this, there’s little question about your expectations. If your partner objects, go back to Tip #2 and start again, or consider resuming the conversation later.
  5. Wrap up the conversation by telling your partner the positive effects of getting what you have asked for. Is your partner’s assistance going to make you less cranky? More likely to want to spend time with them? Help them feel better about themselves? Because without a “good” reason to change the behavior, why should they?

These tips take time and practice–it may not work so well the first time, especially if the discussion is rather complicated and full of heated feelings on both sides. But don’t give up, as these strategies do work when applied appropriately. As always, you have other options to help you with your partner: individual therapy, support groups, and online forums.

*Linehan, M. M. (1993). Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: The Guilford Press.