Communication is the “heart” supporting and promoting positive relationships. As human beings, we’re wired to connect to others. The desire comes naturally to most, but the question becomes how to do so effectively. People may struggle to communicate at all different stages of life, whether it’s a mother trying to connect to her teenage daughter, an employee disagreeing with their employer or a spouse seeking connection and feeling unheard. Ultimately, open, skillful, and effective communication is what creates the foundation for long-term positive relationships with others.
I often tell my clients that good communication is a big piece of the puzzle. It becomes an underlying goal embedded within the therapy we do. We spend a lot of time role playing, re-writing and practicing new scripts to help them communicate more effectively. Although we are wired to connect, we’re not necessarily wired to communicate well and therefore resolve conflicts. I’ve had many clients say, “I’m just not good at communicating and I never will be.” I disagree and explain that communication is a skill, a muscle that needs to be exercised, and dedicated practice does lead to improvement. The reward is huge. People are given the ability to self-regulate and then express themselves. They learn to stop and breathe deeply, to interact and not react. They’re given the opportunity to see and be seen. This becomes an essential ingredient in connecting and growing.
In my dissertation research, I studied marital outcomes in the Jewish Orthodox community. I looked at how conflict resolution, communication and modeling from one generation to the next (i.e., intergenerational transmission) influence marital satisfaction in couples. Over 100 Orthodox married individuals completed my survey. We found that those who used positive communication strategies with their spouse, such as negotiating, compromising, apologizing and problem solving, reported feeling happier in their marriages. These skills were found to foster intimacy, closeness and connection between partners. They promote a sense of emotional safety in the relationship, and create an underlying message of unconditional acceptance. Those who used negative strategies, such as yelling, name calling, ignoring or stonewalling reported being less satisfied in their marriages. We also found that, consistent with prior research, people whose parents modeled poor relationships also reported being less happy in their own marriages.
The important implication is that as partners and parents, what we do matters.
The way we speak to each other and solve issues that arise has a real impact on our long-term happiness and well-being. Whether big or small—forgetting an item at the grocery store, not filling up the car with gas, disagreeing on where to send a child to school or feeling a partner said something hurtful—all of our encounters matter. When we approach each other with compassion and acceptance, validation and understanding, empathy and love, we can assume the best in our partner when they “mess up.” John Powell explains that “Communication works for those who work at it.” The goal is not to agree on everything. The goal is not to do everything in the same robotic way. However, the goal is to tap into what we and our partner need in moments of distress and strike that balanced cord. Some partners need space during a disagreement, others despise space. Some people want to finish the conversation in the morning, and others won’t sleep all night if they wait. The goal is to stop and think. Think about how to share your concern while making your partner feel safe, how to skillfully choose your words and how to view each small hurdle as an opportunity to grow as a couple and a family.
Our children see everything we do and hear everything we say. Whether or not intentional, our language, content of conversations, tone of voice and body language all make a significant impact on them. It affects them as children and into adulthood, in their friendships and marriages. It even influences their future generations. Dr. Becky Kennedy describes that as parents we are doing our best, and there is always room to grow. This is the ultimate dialectic—meaning both can be our truths. We are doing the best we can in this moment, and there is more to learn, grow, change and accomplish. Our children need us to be mindful, to be present, to be patient and to consistently work on our communication. That is how we will invest in our future generations, and set them up for happy, healthy and positive relationships.
Dr. Julie Fleischmann received her Psy.D from Hofstra University and is a licensed clinical psychologist. She has a private practice in Bergen County and also see’s clients via Telehealth. Julie works with teens, young adults and adults. She specializes in anxiety, depression, dating and relationship issues, and DBT skills training.