There are many aspects, habits, and beliefs that can make for a good relationship. No two relationships are the same and as long as both parties are happy, that’s the main goal right? In my own experience, I truly believe that laying a good foundation based upon communication is so important when it comes to a healthy successful partnership. This is my story of how the decision to improve communication saved my relationship and marriage.
I met my husband, Lucas, when I was just 14 years old. That was 18 years ago right in our hometown.
We started off as really good friends. He was a nice, sweet guy that took the time to talk to me and picked on me in a playful way. Over the next few years, we would chat often on MSN messenger (back when that was cool). We’d go on bike rides around town as well as shoot hoops at the west side courts. We’d wave at each other through our connecting art classrooms. He would come and visit me at my job at Express Video and help me return the movies on the shelf (when that was still a thing!) and he’d let me wear his Abercrombie & Fitch hoodie when I was cold (although it fit me like a dress). I think it’s safe to say looking back at all of that now, that there had been some attraction that could be taken more than just friends.
We finally started dating February 2008 right before I graduated high school. It felt so good after all those years of friendship to finally be together - it felt right. And then I went off to college.
End of the honeymoon phase
Since Lucas was a year behind me in school, my first year of college was rough. With a brand new “long distance relationship” and my own personal co-dependency issues, I became really depressed, to the extent that I failed my first semester.
Once Lucas graduated high school, we had a tough decision. Were we going to go to college together or separate? Lucas had coaches recruit him for their teams from all over the state but in the end, he chose UW-Marinette (which is now a branch of UWGB) to be close to family, continue our sports legacy/education, and our relationship.
UW-Marinette did not have dorms, however, so in order to live there affordably, we made the decision (with blessings from both of our parents after a few very long talks) to rent an apartment together at ages 19 and 18. We were so young. So. Very. Young.
Once you live with someone you learn so much about them. You learn their good, bad, and even their ugly. You find out you can’t just “leave and go back home” when stuff starts getting hard. Missing them becomes less and less because you see them every day. You fight about the dishes, the cleaning, the laundry, and of course, money. All of these things while trying to find your way in your own life with school, career, and personal development.
It was hard on us. Very hard. From 2009-2012 were the hardest years we’ve ever been through together (growing pains I’d like to call it). We were two very stubborn people. We lost a lot of respect for each other and started treating each other more as roommates instead of boyfriend and girlfriend. Life was not easy back then, and we made it harder on ourselves by being disconnected and unwilling to work and communicate as a partnership.
We took a break…
March 2012 we decided to take a break from the relationship. Lucas moved back home with his parents and I moved in with a work friend and we spent the next 4 months trying to navigate life in a new normal. It was anything but normal for either of us and speaking for myself, I did some things I was not proud of. But during that time we were both able to live and feel what it was like to not have the other. We were able to see what we had taken for granted and the saying does ring true sometimes “you don’t know what you've got til it’s gone”.
There were a few summer events that forced us to be around each other, and I am now thankful for those times. We were able to talk, and we slowly started to see that there was still a spark there. But if we were to start this relationship over on the right foot, we both needed to commit to making some changes, and one of those big changes was deciding to focus on improving our communication.
We got back together after that summer, and 10 years later (with 7 of those years being married, and currently 9 months of waiting for our baby...), I am convinced that effective communication is the secret ingredient to any good relationship.
Why do I think it’s communication? There are a few reasons, but the biggest one I believe is because you can’t be certain you know what the other person in the relationship is thinking. You may THINK you know, but you are not them. When one person in a relationship is not happy, they need to express what they feel and what they need. On the flip side, it's also important to communicate what DOES make you happy in the relationship. We had not been doing either of these things successfully.
As our communication skills got better, so did our relationship. It was hard at first because of old habits (blaming, shutting down, being defensive, not listening) but we made a consistent effort to try and work through the hard conversations and feelings. In the 14 years we have been together I have not been more in love with Lucas than I am with him today.
These are the communication game changers that I felt really moved the needle for us.
Listening with the intent to understand
One of the biggest human needs in the world is the need to be understood, and yet I believe a lot of us listen only to RESPOND. By actively listening to someone, asking clarifying questions and validating what they are expressing, you can demonstrate you care about what they are saying and get the full picture into their thoughts. This helps make that other person feels heard and respected and will greatly improve your communication. Listening is a hard skill to master and it’s something we practice every day in our household to continue to make us better partners, and it has saved us a lot of arguments.
Don’t take things personal
In the past, if Lucas was having a bad day, it was easy for me to believe it was because of something I did, which was almost never the case. Sometimes the other person has things they need to work on and get through that has absolutely nothing to do with you. I’ve learned to trust that if there is something I can do to help Lucas, he’ll tell me. I ask, “Hey are you OK?” and if he says he is then I trust he is, and I don’t take it personally. Being a good partner is not just about growth together but supporting each other's growth as individuals as well.
Expectations (in my opinion) are relationship killers and will not improve communication. I’ve set expectations in my life and I’ve almost always been disappointed because things didn’t go as I thought they should. To me this is similar in communication and interactions. You can’t expect to know what the other thinks because you are not them. If you expect them to do something, say something, or feel a certain way and they don’t, how do you think that will make you feel? Angry, sad, frustrated? That’s how I would feel. So, I do myself a favor now and I try my best to never set expectations.
Understand that you are not always right
This one was a big one. Lucas and I were both very stubborn people once upon a time. We didn’t understand that there could be more than one solution to a problem, more than one view to a situation, or more than one way to do something. We both thought our way was the one right way. Once we improved our communication, we started to see that that clearly was not the case. We are both two different people with our own experiences and biases. Sometimes one of us is right, sometimes neither of us are right, but we’ve found with time that if we can recognize that sometimes both right, just in different ways, that’s when we both win.
I feel one of the best skills to improve communication in a relationship is to learn to compromise. Both parties have to be willing in order to make this work. After following the first four skills I mentioned compromising is much much more attainable and realistic. Boundaries may need to be set for the compromise to happen but hearing both parties out, accompanied by actively listening and understanding, can help produce an organic compromise that can make both partners feel seen, heard, and validated.
All of these tips to improve our communication have helped us grow into the partnership that we have today. None of these would be able to work if we weren’t willing to talk to each other. We set time aside to go on long walks on the weekend (sometimes when only lightning bugs light the road) and we talk about anything. We talk about dumb things, fun things, and (my favorite) deep meaningful things. But it took a long time and a lot of work to get to this point. Sometimes misunderstandings still happen, but these habits we’ve been practicing have become automatic now. They have been worth all of the work we have done and continue to do.
Today, I challenge you to think about one way you can improve your communication with a partner or a loved one and begin practicing that everyday! If you find you need some guidance working on changing the way you communicate and build these habits in your life, consider Wellness Coaching at Western! We have a team of certified Wellness Coaches with expertise in helping you live your best life and building habits that strengthen the wellness of you and your relationships. If you're not familiar with Wellness Coaching or want to dip your toes in to see what it's all about, consider a Discovery Session! The Discovery Session is a great way to give yourself a chance to find out if wellness coaching is right for you and can expect to leave this 60-minute session with direction on taking tangible steps towards whatever your individual goals are.