One Simple Ritual to Strengthen Communication Between Partners

By Falon Hooks, MA, t-LMFT
PACT Level 2 Therapist

If you are coming into my office for couples therapy, I can guess that one central concern is communication. Whether it is too infrequent, too intense, or too uncomfortable of a topic, many of you will sit lips pursed, hoping the unspoken moment will pass. 

Those micro-moments of anxiety and disconnection add up quickly. Before you realize it, you cannot remember the last time you sat facing your partner to chat and, more importantly, connect. 

When I consider how communication between partners must work, I immediately turn to secure-functioning principles of honesty and transparency. Just say what is true.

How many times have you felt a shift in your partner’s mood and the moment you inquire, they brush it off? Their replies range from a grunt to “Nothing” to “I don’t want to talk right now.” 

Alarm bells start to sound, you clam up, and you are quite certain trouble is looming. You begin to scan your actions over the last 24 hours: “What did I forget? Is it our anniversary? When was the last time we had sex?!” Depending on your style, you either keep poking your partner until they explode, or you retreat, hoping that whatever storm has brewed will soon blow over. 

As a couple, you have well-worn this track because it is what you know, and I would also guess that your parents modeled similar conflict behaviors. In my therapist’s chair, I only get one hour with a couple to try and accomplish one central task: change the way that you experience each other. If you can change the experience of the relationship in real-time, expanding on the limits previously set, then the couple has the space to interact differently and work a new pattern. 

When you can go face to face and eye to eye with your partner and just say what is true, that is when the experience of the relationship begins to change. That is exactly what I am here to help you start doing now.

How Communication Changes

Beating down a new track takes practice. At first it feels unsteady or awkward, but even in our discomfort we must continue. I want to ask you to give your relationship the same attention you may mindlessly dole out to managing meals, schedules, and finances. If you miss a mortgage payment, the world stops, but if you do not have a meaningful conversation with your partner every week, everything keeps spinning. In my experience, couples endure months and years of disconnection and operating on auto-pilot until something happens to make their world stop. 

If you search the internet for “couples check-in,” you will find a myriad of lists, resources, and ideas to prompt conversation. As a realist, a wifey, a working mother of three with both friends and hobbies, I know that there is no way the average couple is sitting down weekly to ask and answer 25 or even 10 questions to check in on their relationship. 

With this in mind — and the skills you need to be building and strengthening — I have narrowed down the four action items that speak to creating space for honest, transparent communication as close to real-time as possible. Yes, just four!

  1. Lead with a compliment or something you have appreciated about your partner from the past week. It is far easier to take a seat at the table and prepare yourself to hear feedback if you are initially met with a compliment. Appreciation and acknowledgment signal to your partner that you care for them and you are friendly. A compliment can shift the tone of the rest of the interaction.
  2. Unload what you have been carrying for the past week. What resentment, irritation, or issue is still taking up space in the back of your mind? Whether minor or major, it must come out. For example, “It really bothered me when you made that joke about me making us late in front of your parents.” 

    If you cannot give voice to those seemingly minor infractions, every offense starts to add weight to your resentment bag. Any couple that has been together for a reasonable amount of time carries a resentment bag. Your resentment bag is likely full of past and/or perpetual conflicts that have no solution and, more importantly, did not have any meaningful repair. Begin unloading your resentment bag by not adding any more weight to it. 
  3. Repair. Your partner has shared something tender with you so now what? 

    Repair is to acknowledge, validate, and apologize to your partner in a meaningful way. “You are right. I know you are sensitive about being late, and I absolutely should not have made that joke. Thank you for telling me. I am sorry.”

    To repair all you need is the simple acceptance that something you did (intentional or not) negatively impacted your partner and that you have the power to minister to their distress. In validating your partner’s emotional experience, you do not have to agree with their perspective. Through the act of repair, we are aiming for acknowledgment and care.
  4. Name one thing you need or want from your partner in the coming week. We all have needs, wants, and desires. For example, “We have dinner out with my boss on Wednesday night. Could you leave work a few minutes early to meet me there on time, right at 5pm? I know it is silly, but I feel awkward when I am alone in that setting, and you are so great at making me feel more at ease.” When our relationship is not going well, we try to minimize or avoid articulating what we want. Some of us grew up in spaces where what we wanted was never a part of the conversation, so we struggle to name our needs in adulthood. That said, everything in a reciprocal relationship must go both ways. 

So yes, even if your partner just informed you of a major snafu that you had to repair and you are feeling like a bit of a turd, I still want you to acknowledge and take space for your own needs. This is crucial for you to continue to learn. You are worthy. Your partner chose you. Secure-functioning relationships still operate and pay off, even when we have made mistakes. We agree to have each other’s backs and always operate under the assumption that two good-enough, imperfect people can have a wonderful relationship. 

How Communication Lasts

By articulating what we want and need, you give your partner the chance to show up for you in an authentic and meaningful way. You and your partner are different people who love and loathe different things. If you want them to guess your wants and needs, that is fine, but please prepare yourself to be disappointed. 

Their guesses are likely going to be projections of what would make them feel cared for. Since we have already acknowledged your differences, they are likely to get it wrong. Being clear is kind, and it gives them the opportunity to get it right… for you.

That is it. Four simple prompts to connect every single week. If you are really struggling within your relationship, you may agree to check in and connect more frequently. Join your partner at the table, set your devices to Do Not Disturb, and give your relationship —  your lifeblood in this world — the 20 minutes of focused attention it deserves. 

Oh, and if you are like my clients, you may wonder, “So, how long do we do this for?” Unlike most things in couplehood or in therapy for that matter, my answer is simple: “Until you die.”


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