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How to Talk So Your Partner Will Listen

Small changes in what you say can make a big difference in what your partner hears.
By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

You talk to your partner all the time, but do you communicate well? Probably not, a recent study suggests. Researchers at the University of Chicago found that most married couples don't communicate with their partners any better than they do with strangers.

What gives? Scientists have a theory that because you feel so close to your partner, you overestimate how well you're really connecting; you leave out the important details that you assume he or she knows about you, too.

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Couples who've been together a long time are also quicker to point out flaws in each other, which can cause someone to feel attacked and go on the defensive. They might do this by blocking the attack (saying something like, "You don't know what you're talking about") or by leaving, physically or emotionally. The bottom line is, one tunes the other out. So instead of getting to the root of important issues, more may crop up.

Next time you want to talk about something important with your partner -- and you want them to listen -- try the following tips.

Begin with what you appreciate about your partner. This isn't about lifting them up before you knock them down. Think about what you love about your partner and your relationship. By doing this and then telling them, the two of you will feel you have a more solid foundation. This will help you keep your issue in perspective and help your partner listen less defensively.

Say what you want, not just what you don't want. For example, telling your partner to stop complaining does not tell him what you want him to do. Are you telling him to always keep his struggles to himself, or are you saying this is not a good time for you to talk? It's much more helpful to say something like, "I know you're having a hard time, but I'm so tired that I can't think straight now. Can we talk about this later, after I've rested, so that I can really be there for you?"

Be specific. Saying what you want works best when you are specific. Saying "I want you to show me that you love me" is less likely to get you what you want than saying, "It would really help me feel more loved if you'd give me a hug and kiss every night when you come home."

Expert Tip

"A lot of people think fighting is a sign of an unhealthy marriage, but it can actually be a good thing. Couples who express their anger to each other live longer than those who swallow negative feelings in order to keep the peace." -- Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of "WebMD Magazine." 

Reviewed on November 15, 2013

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