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How to Communicate Your Feelings in a Strained Relationship

Communication in any relationship isn’t exactly easy. Two people with different opinions, different perspectives, and different ways of expressing themselves, trying to understand each other? It’s no wonder that many couples struggle to communicate effectively. (Honestly, you can’t help but wonder what a little communication could have done for Romeo and Juliet. Just sayin’.)

Even couples in strong, healthy relationships have a hard time with communication. So what about couples who are already in a struggling relationship? As much as relationships can be a source of joy in our lives, they can also be a source of stress and contention—and poor communication certainly doesn’t help.

How do you communicate your feelings when your relationship is strained?

(Quick note: this post is going to talk about “relationships” in terms of romantic relationships, but most of these principles can be applied to any relationship.)

The importance of good communication in a relationship

Why is good communication so important in a relationship? Because it can help it become stronger in so many ways. Effective communication will help you and your partner: 

Solve conflict

Every relationship faces conflict. (Yes, every relationship.) But the relationship isn’t going to last if you aren’t able to work through that conflict and get back to a place of moving forward together instead of pushing against each other.

Accomplish more together

What is the point of a relationship? Relationships do a lot for us (emotionally, mentally, and physically), and one of those things is that they give us someone to support us as we work toward our goals. That said, it will be harder to work together if you aren’t able to communicate effectively.

Meet each other’s needs

Everyone has needs in a relationship. One person’s needs may look slightly different than the others, but basically, there are things we’re all looking to get out of a relationship. Often, conflict arises when one or both of the partner’s needs aren’t being met in some way. Without strong communication, those needs will continue to go unmet, and the relationship will unravel. (Learn more about needs and how they tie into communication in this article.)

Maintain trust and love.

Ultimately, relationships are about giving and receiving love. As you communicate your hopes, dreams, fears, insecurities, and more to your partner (and receive the same from them), you’ll develop the trust and closeness needed for a thriving relationship. 

How to communicate your feelings in a strained relationship

It’s easy to see that communication is an important part of a healthy relationship, but how do you communicate your feelings in a strained relationship? When your relationship isn’t in a great place, it can be even harder to open up and express yourself to your partner.

Here are some things that might help.

Show up and listen.

If you want your partner to hear you, then it’s important that you also hear them. No one is going to want to listen to you when they feel like you are trying to shove their opinions down their throat without listening to what they have to say in return.

When you’re trying to communicate with your partner, be present. Put away distractions. Turn off the TV and the computer. Set down your phone. Stop making dinner. Make eye contact. Do what you need to do to show them that you are showing up to the conversation in a deliberate and conscious way.

Along with that, practice active listening when communicating with your partner. This means not just nodding along with everything they say while your mind is actually wandering to your to-do list, but actually taking in and processing what they’re saying. Listen to learn, not to reply. Ask clarifying questions. Repeat back to them what you heard (e.g. “If I understand right, you feel [fill in the blank]”). Recently, I received feedback and realized much of it was right. Be okay with that and humble enough to love and adapt based on what you learned. If you do that, you’ll be the exception and the kind of partner someone wants to spend eternity with.

Also, by truly demonstrating your willingness to listen and learn, you increase your chances of being heard. And increase the chances you partner will give you the same love, care and respect in return.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Stephen R. Covey

Know your audience.

It’s important to speak to your partner in a way that will resonate with them. Otherwise, you might as well be speaking two different languages. 

Does your partner appreciate directness, or do you have to say things gently to keep them from getting defensive? Will your partner tell you what’s on their mind, or will you have to do some digging to uncover their feelings? What will help your partner feel heard in your conversation?

You may think you already know your partner, but if you are struggling with communication and with your relationship in general, there’s probably more sides to them you need to become acquainted with. While spending time together will certainly help, it can also help to think about personality types or other frameworks that will help you see a new side to your companion. For example:

  • The 5 Love Languages: This is a popular framework to use in romantic relationships. It reveals how you and your partner give and receive love. If your partner is trying to express their love through acts of service, but what you really need is words of affirmation, you’re going to struggle to meet each other’s needs.
  • Meyers-Briggs: With 16 possible personality types, this framework is useful for getting into some of the specifics of what makes your partner (and yourself) “tick.” This framework can highlight your strengths and weaknesses, including those relating to communication, and can help you get to know each other better and form a stronger overall bond. (Take a free test here to determine your type.)
  • The Enneagram: The Enneagram includes 9 types that are centered largely around motivation. Each type has a basic fear or desire that guides their actions. (For example, a Type 1’s basic fear is corruption, so they are often rule-followers and perfectionists.) There are many aspects of the Enneagram that play into relationships and communication. Understanding your partner’s type, as well as your own, could go a long way in making your relationship stronger.

Stay on topic.

One common error in communication between couples, and particularly couples in strained relationships, is to bring up past situations. Saying something like, “You never do that!” or “We already went over this…” isn’t likely to lead to a productive conversation.

When communicating with your partner (especially during an argument), do your best not to bring up past arguments. All that will do is open up old wounds and distance you further. 

Instead, remember that right now, you are having a conversation about the present. Your present goal is to get back on the same page, to communicate your feelings, and to hopefully solve the conflict at hand.

Use “I” language

When a relationship is strained, it’s easy for statements to come across as attacks, no matter how true or seemingly innocent they are. In an argument, any sentence that starts with “You” is more likely to do this:

“You never listen to me.”
never really care about me.”
“You didn’t tell me you were going to be late tonight.”

When someone hears statements like this, they’re more likely to go on the defensive, which could spark an argument. 

Instead, keep your statements focused on yourself and your feelings. This sounds more like:

“I’m frustrated when you don’t answer my texts.”
“I wish we could go on more dates.”
“I need to connect with you more frequently.”

The difference may be subtle, but it’s important. It could help your partner recognize that you’re trying to solve a problem, not come at them swinging.

Another powerful tool related to this is using the phrase “The story I’m telling myself.…” This is an idea introduced by Brenè Brown that is meant to promote vulnerability in communication. When you use this phrase to communicate to your partner what you perceive as happening, you are expressing yourself in an open, non-threatening way that will encourage them to do the same. 

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Be honest and clear

The point of communicating isn’t going around and around in circles, waiting for the other person to finally see things your way on their own. Instead, the point is to try to work through the discussion together. Coming to a real solution that is mutually beneficial is going to be a lot harder if you’re not willing to honestly share what you’re thinking and feeling.

When communicating your feelings to your partner, speak honestly. If you need to pause and think before you speak, do it. Try your best to identify the exact feeling you have, and communicate it clearly to your partner. By laying all your cards out on the table, you’re bringing the real issues into the light, and that’s the only way they’re ever going to get resolved.

If you know you have a difficult conversation coming up with your partner, spend some time investigating your own thoughts and thinking about what it is you really want to say. What is the feeling at the root of the problem? What needs do you have that your partner isn’t meeting? By being as honest as you can, you’re clearing the path to a real solution. 

Get professional help

When a relationship has been on the rocks for a while, it can be extremely beneficial to enlist professional help. Having the guidance of a professionally-trained, uninvolved party who can help guide your discussion can prove invaluable to your relationship, especially if your communication has stalled.

On that note, please don’t wait until you’re on the brink of divorce (or breakup) to see a professional, if the relationship matters to you. The sooner you course correct your off-track communication, the easier it will be to get back on the same page. Don’t feel ashamed about seeing a professional; instead, think of it as fighting for your relationship. In my opinion, that’s something to be proud of.

A quick note about abusive relationships

Before wrapping up, I want to make it clear that these tips can and will help you communicate your feelings in a strained relationship. However, if your relationship has problems that cross the line from “strained” and into “abusive” territory, it is absolutely essential that you take more drastic measures.

You deserve to be in a two-way relationship, one where you’re both fighting and giving it your all, and abuse is not that. An abusive relationship is one you are better off without.

(P.S. There’s plenty of happiness to be had, even after a breakup.)

Being in a struggling relationship is hard for a number of reasons, and communication problems in a strained relationship can be frustrating and disheartening. Remember: the only person you can control is you. With that in mind, do your part to communicate your feelings and improve overall communication in your relationship. You will both be better off for it.

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