Rules of Engagement

10 Essential Communication Rules For Happy Couples

Implementing just a few of these can change the way you communicate for the better.

A happy couple laughing and staring into one another's eyes

Communication is the cornerstone of every healthy relationship. Couples who take time to focus on it — what works, what doesn’t, what habits need to get the old heave ho — are the better for it. They hear one another, they click. It makes life easier and solutions are reached more easily because there are fewer conversational obstacles in the way.

But, let’s face it, this isn’t always easy, and ensuring that most conversations go well requires a decent amount of vigilance. It’s easy to develop bad communication habits because of course it is. Life is hectic, there’s always so much to discuss and, well, there are a million little things that can muck a discussion up. A serious conversation may be hoisted upon you when you’re de-stressing from a tough day and aren’t in the proper headspace and respond with one-word responses, which are not, shall we say, appreciated. Or, maybe one of you immediately goes on the defensive during minor arguments and tends to make issues much worse than they are. Or maybe one of you interrupts a lot, which leads to not-so-fun back-and-forths that sound like they were ripped from a Cheever novel.

The list goes on. And, hey, it’s normal for issues to appear. What’s important is that attention is paid to problem areas and you both work to find solutions that allow you to communicate with honesty and respect. To improve communication you have to, well, communicate. “First, ask your partner, ‘How do you feel we communicate during stressful moments? Do you feel appreciated and acknowledged? If you could change one thing about the way I communicate, what would it be?’,” says Reena B. Patel, a psychologist, parenting expert, and licensed educational board certified behavior analyst. “Actively listen, and validate by saying, ‘I hear, I see, I feel.’”

A tactic that also helps promote healthy communication — and prevent a lot of common issues — is to discuss, and implement, some shared ground rules. Wait five seconds before speaking to ensure you don’t interrupt, for instance. Or agreeing to not text about important topics. Agreeing on a few help keep you aware of — and correct — bad habits that might lead to frustrations. With the help of several relationship experts, we’ve assembled ten rules that can help sidestep common trouble areas and help improve your communication for good.

1. Set Clear Boundaries

It’s important to pay attention to when certain conversations are had. Attempting to bring up a conversation with your partner when he or she has just come home from a long day, for instance, is almost guaranteed to end in failure. If you establish that certain times are better than others for important conversations, it ensures that your partner will be ready to hear what you have to say and respond appropriately. “Implementing communication boundaries allows you and your partner to understand when it is appropriate to reach out to each other,” says Mike ​Bute​ra, a marriage and family therapist at Council for Relationships.

2. Don’t Text About The Big Stuff

Listen, texting is a great way to stay in touch during the day. Hell, sometimes a sweet message, kids pic, or silly .gif from a spouse is all it takes to turn a shitty afternoon around. While it can be tempting to have a difficult conversation over text — it is, after all, a more neutral place — limits should be set on what topics are discussed. It can be taxing when you’re surprised by a big discussion via text that requires a lot of attention when you weren’t expecting it. Plus, it’s easy to misread someone’s tone or intent. “The emotional expression behind a text is up for interpretation,” Butera says. A good rule of thumb? “Make sure to be in the same room for topics of conversation that are complex, vulnerable or involving a major life decision.”

3. Remove Distractions

Speaking of texting, having your phone in hand, laptop nearby or the TV on during an important conversation is a recipe for distraction — and side-eye. Phubbing can really phutz with you. Make a pact to put phones or other distractions in the other room so you can be as engaged as possible — and avoid frustration — during important interactions. Recognize when it’s one of those talks and set your phone in the other room, or power it down. “This sends a message to the other person that you're prioritizing the conversation above all else,” Butera says.

4. Run It Back

Here’s a simple one that pays big dividends. When you’re having bigger discussions, agree to repeat the other person’s message back to them so they know you heard and understood it. And if you didn’t quite repeat everything they said or acknowledge the important issue, that’s a sign for them to repeat some talking points or refine the discussion. It’s Good Listening 101 and makes a big difference. “Once you repeat the message and demonstrate your ability to listen, ask your spouse ‘Is there more?’,” says Michael Archord, co-founder of Marriage Restoration. “Continue this process until your spouse has nothing left to share.”

5. Assume The Best of Your Partner

During more difficult discussions, it’s easy for emotions run high and to feel a bit more sensitive to things your partner is saying. Assume the best of one another during such interactions. And rather than flying off the handle, agree to stay calm ask your partner what he or she meant by their remark. “For example,” says Archord, “the husband makes an off-color comment. Instead of becoming immediately angry, the wife puts it in neutral and says to the husband ‘This is how I took the comment you just made, is that how you meant it?’ This gives the husband a chance to clarify and apologize if needed.”

6. Don’t Raise Your Voice

Yelling creates an environment where everyone feels guarded and defensive. In addition, if children are present, it sets a bad example, as they will start to believe that screaming is how arguments are resolved. Not a good look. Set a rule where both of you agree to keep your voices to a conversational level. If one person begins to raise their voice, it’s time to to call a time out so they gather themselves.

7. Keep Your Emotions Focused

When discussing a difficult subject, a good rule is to keep the conversation centered on how you’re feeling and not what your partner has (or hasn’t) done. If you can tell them that you feel upset or sad about something, it’s going to go a lot further than if you start the conversation by telling them everything they’ve done to make you feel that way. “We may not always get the reaction we’re hoping for when we share our feelings directly, but it’s much more likely we’ll be met with defensiveness if we talk about our partners,” says L. Emily Dowling, a licensed marriage and family therapist. Additionally, Patel stresses how important it is to avoid casting blame or resorting to insults about perceived slights. “People who are hurt and insulted rarely want to listen and make things better.”

8. Stay in the Present

A common path during disagreements is to turn the conversation into a venting session where past transgressions are dug up. Soon, whatever you were talking about at the start is lost. Bringing up the past rarely resolves a current argument. In fact, is more likely to intensify it. Agree to stay on the issue at hand and, if there are past mistakes to discuss, revisit them at a later time when you’re both in a place to hear them. “When you’ve both calmed down, there will likely be a good time to talk about any patterns you notice about your disagreements,” says Dowling.

9. Don’t Be Afraid to Say “Oops”

That is, agree to recognize when you’ve said something hurtful or miscommunicated your intentions. Often in an argument, when we misspeak, a common tendency is to become defensive, doubling down on what was said and refusing to back down from a point. If you can take a moment and realize that what you said was wrong, it’s a great opportunity to show your partner that you can take responsibility for your actions and validate their feelings. You don’t have to say ‘Oops’ out loud, of course, but use it as a signal to yourself that you screwed up and need to course correct. “Listen to your partner if their feelings are hurt and try to empathize and validate,” Dowling says. “Care for the hurt first and then offer to share an explanation if it’s helpful for both of you.”

10. Have A Team Mentality

Even if it feels like you are on different pages, the truth is, you are a partnership and, more than likely, you want the same things. You want security, connection, and the feeling that you can problem solve together with little or no stress. If you approach discussions with the mindset of two people working towards a shared goal, as opposed to one person accusing the other, the conversation will likely be much more pleasant and productive. “When something difficult comes up,” says Dowling, “remind yourself and each other ‘We’re in this together.’”