How to Communicate Your Feelings Effectively in a Relationship
Believe it or not: your mental wellness is impacted by your interpersonal relationships, which is why it's important to communicate with warmth and candor. But communicating feelings is a skill that requires practice and refinement. There are many core foundations that contribute to the building blocks of a healthy relationship, among them, conflict management and communicating feelings effectively.
According to The Knot 2021 Self-Love & Stress Study, which surveyed over 500 women-identifying respondents aged 18-29, the most important signs of a healthy relationship are likely what you'd expect. When asked to list the top four characteristics, 62% chose trust as number one. Communication was listed next, with 58% of respondents ranking it as the second-most important quality, followed by honesty at 46% and respect at 43%. Other descriptions included having fun and enjoying each other's company, commitment, support, having shared values and self-love.
How to Communicate Your Feelings in a Relationship
Even the healthiest of relationships come with its ups and downs, moments of misunderstandings and stressors that impact the ability to communicate with warmth and kindness. Styles of communication that can negatively impact the tone of communication include: accusing, constantly interrupting, following emotional reasoning, stonewalling and refusing to partake in perspective taking. When we fall into the cycle of miscommunication and misunderstanding, we miss the opportunity to connect with our partner and get to know them deeply. Each time we fall into conflict is an opportunity to engage in repair, which can be a transformative experience both individually, and as a couple.
Common feelings that come up which are necessary to communicate include anger, loneliness, jealousy and frustration. Not communicating our feelings can result in increased anxiety, tension and resentment in the relationship. If you're struggling with talking about your feelings, it helps to first put words to the feeling that is coming up for you. A question that I like to ask clients is "If this feeling could talk, what would it say?" For example, "if your loneliness could talk, what would it say?" This exercise might be a catalyst in helping you identify your triggers, needs, and concerns. When you're having a hard time identifying exactly what it is that you're feeling, you can utilize this feelings wheel illustrated by Bret Stein, for further guidance.
A key component in communicating your feelings effectively is recognizing the emotional space that you are in. Are you in the midst of a trigger? Is your judgment feeling cloudy? If you're finding yourself in this kind of space, it may seem enticing to get the words out and say something in the heat of the moment. To want to get whatever is on your mind off of your chest.
However, you want to have an honest conversation with yourself first and ask yourself if you are in the space to have the type of dialogue that you are looking for. Give yourself some time to be able to formulate what's on your mind and communicate in a way that creates a sense of safety in the relationship.
Our tone of voice can contribute to the health of the relationship, you can be kind and stern, assertive and curious. Taking space might look like: waiting a few hours before approaching a heated topic, processing the conversation with trusted friends to help you gain perspective of the situation, or writing out your feelings and thoughts. As we process with ourselves and others, this helps us fine-tune the points that we'd like to get across and helps us identify what the purpose is in the conversation.
How to Communicate Your Feelings in Conflict
If you're the type of person who shuts down during conflict or you're losing your points by feeling overwhelmed, then you'll want to take some steps to organize your thoughts. It's helpful to write out, first, what you are wanting to communicate. In order to be clear with your partner, you must first learn how to be clear with yourself.
Write Your Thoughts Out
Learning how to communicate is a skill that can be practiced, learned and fine-tuned over time. If you need your notebook in front of you to help you remember what you'd like to bring up to your partner, feel free to bring it out! This can be a grounding way for you to stay on task and limit feelings of being overwhelmed that may creep in during the conversation.
Notice Body Language
Now that we've established the importance of taking space and communicating from a place of clarity, let's talk body language. Make sure that your body language suggests that you are open to having a conversation, and not a battle. Engage in eye contact with your partner, uncross your arms, and lean if you are able. (Note: if you are neurodivergent, then eye contact may be an overwhelming sensory experience, and this is okay, be sure that your partner is aware of this and it is not taken personal).
Identify Your Purpose and Objective
When you're ready to communicate, identify two things: What is my purpose in sharing this information and what would I like to get out of the conversation? Be clear and direct in stating what your purpose is so that the conversation can stay on course. For example: "I am sharing this because I want you to know how I feel. What I'd like to get out of this conversation is validation and hopefully, problem-solving on how we can work together moving forward."
Be Mindful of Your Words
Lastly, pay attention to your words. Our words are powerful and can shift the trajectory and tone of the conversation. If possible, use "I statements," this shifts the focus on how you feel and what you think, versus your beliefs about the person you are talking to. This can lower the defensiveness in the conversation. For example, "I feel lonely when you don't make plans for us" versus "You don't care about our relationship." Notice the difference in how language can influence the tone of the conversation.
Listen to Your Partner
Healthy communication involves reciprocity. While this article focuses on how to communicate your feelings, and essential part of communication is also listening. Be sure to give your partner the time and space to express how they feel, listen, and reflect. If you're unsure if your message was delivered appropriately, it's okay to ask "what did you hear me say?" and provide any feedback or edits that you find necessary based on what they heard. Oftentimes, what we hear and what the other person says can be two different things, so it is important to clarify in the moment to prevent further miscommunication.
Check in About Your Feelings
When the conversation is coming to a close, normalize checking in with each other. This might sound like "how are you feeling about our talk? Do we need to follow up again later?" We grow in our relationships by being open to giving and receiving feedback. If you struggle with talking about your feelings, recognize that this is normal. This opens up a portal of vulnerability that places us in a position to experience discomfort, however, it's important to note that this same vulnerability is what can help us create deep and meaningful interactions with our partner.