Communication, communication, communication—yeah, yeah, yeah. You've heard it's the key to a closer bond and all that. But before your eyes glaze over, know this: It's also the number one predictor of relationship satisfaction, per a 2016 survey of more than 25,000 men and women in the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy. So mastering the art of talking isn't an empty trope—it's the ticket to a happy union.
Sure, communicating can mean airing a grievance in a way that won't make your partner recoil. But it also means regularly deploying words of kindness, of understanding, of humour, of playfulness. That all sounds logical, except that finding the perfect words to express how we feel—and get the results we want—isn't necessarily intuitive.
Unless you're clocking hours on the couples therapy couch, no one ever tells you what to say. "Sometimes we feel we're conveying what we mean, but the message isn't being received in the way we intended it," says Eli Finkel, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and author of The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work. And it's not just about getting the wording right, but paying more attention to context. The tone you use, and the circumstances in which you bring something up, can mean the difference between conversation and confrontation.
Now for the reassuring news: By having some key phrases ready to go, you can get exactly what you want (and need) from your relationship. Love ya, Lloyd Dobler, but music isn't the answer. Use your words.
Next time you and your S.O. start getting on each other nerves, bust out one of these four phrases to nip your impending blowout in the bud:
"WHAT DO YOU HAVE ON YOUR PLATE THIS WEEK?"
Asking this every Sunday will avoid blowups later in the week. Let us explain: People tend to attribute their partner's "bad" behavior to a personality defect rather than circumstances, says Finkel. In other words, if your hubby is extra busy this week and he skimps on household duties, your frustration might skew you to think: He never helps out around here! Having this quick convo can prevent that kind of reactive criticism.
"CAN WE WORK OUT A SYSTEM SO THINGS RUN MORE SMOOTHLY?"
Sometimes you have to remind each other to do chores ("Can you pick up the kids?" "Can you drop off the dry cleaning?"), but constantly assigning them like that can come across as naggy and also build resentment ("Why do I have to keep asking you?"). Create a long-term, who-does-what plan together to end the one-off requests. It might even be eye-opening. "One person gets home later and doesn't realise the other person has already walked the dog and picked up groceries for the week," says Amy Banks, M.D., director of advanced training for the Jean Baker Miller Centre for Relational Growth in Wellesley, Massachusetts. "It's those smaller, unseen things that go unnoticed, compared with a day spent cleaning the garage."
"I SEE WHERE YOU'RE COMING FROM. WHAT YOU'RE SAYING IS. . ."
When he expresses frustration with you, instead of firing off a defence, first rephrase his concerns. That signals to him that you're trying to understand his point, says Finkel. Then state your case as feelings rather than facts: "When you say that, I feel like I'm in second place to your family," instead of "You diminish me when we're with them."
"OUR RELATIONSHIP IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THIS."
Every couple has points of contention, like politics or small-picture issues. And while disagreements won't destroy your relationship, trying to "win" every one or change your partner's mind can. Houston-based couples therapist Mary Jo Rapini, author of Re-Coupling, says this is her rule of thumb: If it's come up at least three times without resolution, consider it a trigger issue and avoid it. The key is to defuse tension and remember your relationship comes first.
This article originally appeared on Women's Health Mag