It is not unusual as a couples’ therapist to hear one person in the relationship react to the other’s account of recent events with,  “I SAID I’m sorry!” in exasperation that the other person is still feeling wounded.

**Let’s take a fictional example.

Jim and Sally came in for their relationship counseling session.

Sally immediately melted into a puddle of tears as she recounts the fight she and Jim had just last night.

Jim’s body immediately became tense with obviously extreme frustration. He leaned bac,  away from Sally on the sofa,  put his hand up to his forehead, rolled his eyes to closed, sighed heavily and fixed his mouth in a pursed, tight expression.

Sally cried and described how Jim screamed at her, called her terrible names and left slamming the door behind him.

Jim’s eyes flew open.  He sat forward forcefully, looked at Sally and through gritted teeth growled, “I TOLD you LAST NIGHT that I was sorry!”

Sally folded in on herself and buried her face in her hands weeping.

It doesn’t take a masters degree in psychology to know that what Jim was saying with his body and his tone was not at all in line with the words he spoke.

The research of Dr. John Gottman tells us that the WAY we communicate to our partner – tone of voice, facial expressions, posture, hand positioning, body language  – can be what makes or breaks a relationship.

In order to be understood and have harmony in a relationship, couples need to learn:

1. how to start a conversation “softly”

2.  how to respond thoughtfully and mindfully rather than reacting

3.  how to really listen to your partner so that your partner feels heard

Here are 8 tips I teach my couples in relationship therapy:

Be loose and easy. I’m talking about your body language. When talking or listening to your partner, practice sitting with your arms and legs uncrossed, lift and drop your eyebrows to remind you to soften the muscles in your face, let your tongue come away from the roof of your mouth which will relax your jaw. Stay relaxed as much as possible. 93% of what you say is through your facial expressions and your body so don’t attack your spouse with your non-verbals.

Walk softly (and leave the big stick behind).  Now, this is not the same thing as walking on egg shells or tip-toeing around an important issue.  Walking softly is all in the approach. Choose your words carefully and intentionally soften your tone as you raise a topic with your partner that needs to be addressed.


Harsh Start Up: “Jackie, your idea about getting another dog is ridiculous. There is no way I’m putting up with another animal around here.”
Soft Start Up: “Hey honey, you know how we were talking about getting another dog the other day? I know that’s something you really want.  I’ve been thinking about it and I have a few concerns I’d like to share with you.”

Make requests not demands. When you find yourself wanting your partner to do something for you, shape a request and avoid dictatorial language. It’s safe to start  with “I’d like to make a request…”

Nobody loves a critic. Choose your words carefully. Express concerns softly but be very careful it doesn’t come through as criticism. Criticism is a sure-fire way to damage your relationship.

Walk away with a promise to come back. When things get over-heated, it’s wise to take a time-out but do so in a way that your partner knows it’s just a break so you can both cool off. Stomping off and slamming doors while yelling the last word on the way out is damaging to the relationship. Read my article on how to take a healthy time out in relationships.

Rational solutions are not found in a flood. Dr. Gottman’s research indicates that when people are “flooded” with emotion it is impossible to even hear what someone else is trying to communicate much less problem-solve and be rational. It’s imperative to observe time and space to allow the upset to settle and then return to discussing the issue.

Opinions are not the same as feelings.  This one always kind of tickles me. I ask a client, “What is the feeling you have around what she just said?” and the client says, “Well, I feel like she’s being unreasonable.”  That response is an opinion not a feeling. It’s important in communication to be able to identify and own your feelings. You know what they say about opinions… everyone has one but in this case we want to own feelings rather than throw around opinions for healthier communication. Here are some examples of feelings vs. opinions:

Opinion: “I feel like this conversation is a waste and is not getting us anywhere.”
Feeling: “I feel frustrated with the lack of progress we are making.”
Opinion: “I feel as if he is being cruel.”
Feeling: “I feel hurt and disappointed when he speaks to me that way.”

Wear your partner’s shoes. Your perception and experience may be different than your partner’s.  Get this one down pat and you’re practically home-free in terms of healthier communication.  For myriad reasons, your partner most likely sees, hears, experiences and understands some things in ways that may be very different from the way you see, hear, experience and understand that same thing. Focus on attempting to step into your partner’s shoes and put on your partner’s lenses.

Remember…. pay attention to HOW you express yourself and the quality communication with your partner will most assuredly improve.

**Jim and Sally mentioned in this article are NOT actual clients. Nothing in this article is referring to particular clients but intended to illustrate common patterns of communication and behavior often observed in relationship counseling.