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How to talk to your boyfriend/girlfriend

Good communication skills are essential to holding a relationship together. We asked psychologist Dr Janet Reibstein for her tips on talking things through with your boyfriend or girlfriend.

boy and girl on phones

It's possible to take modern communication too far.

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You love them. They love you. So why is it so damn hard to talk as a couple without it spiralling into an argument? 

No matter how in love you are, you will argue. You will disagree. You will sometimes look at them and think ‘how the bloody hell can you think that? I don’t even know who you are anymore!”

This is inevitable, and sparring isn’t a sign that you’re in the wrong relationship. But how you deal with these disagreements is very important in keeping a relationship happy and healthy.

“Managing conflict is the primary relationships skill,” says Dr Janet Reibstein, a psychologist and professor at Exeter University. “Conflict will always be there, even in the best relationship. Learning how to manage it is key.”

Getting ready to talk to your partner

Step 1 – take some time out

So you’re upset. We know it’s hard, but please try to not tell them just yet. Not right away. Take some time out for yourself and reflect on your feelings. Try and label why their behaviour has made you feel the way you feel.

If you react straight away, when you’re still hyper-emotional and aren’t exactly sure what you’re feeling, you’re more likely to yell unhelpful things like, “I HATE YOU, WHY ARE YOU SO EVIL?”

“Don’t blurt things out, the discussion can quickly become a minefield,” says Dr Janet. “It’s really important to be prepared – for your partner’s response, as well as your own.”

Step 2 – think about what their view may be

This bit is even harder… thinking about the possibility you may not be utterly right, in every way.

“You need to be prepared for a difference in opinion,” says Dr Janet. “Their perspective may not seem reasonable to you, but it will to them. This is uncomfortable, but important.”

Take some time to imagine what they may be feeling and try to keep an open mind instead of getting wedded to your side of the argument. You may have to compromise, or you could find just listening to each other’s opinion, and realising why you don’t agree, could be enough.

Step 3 – give your partner a chance to prepare

You’ve gone through the process of working out what you feel and why, so it’s only fair you give your partner the chance to do the same. Otherwise you’ll just get their emotional response. It sounds clinical, but book in some time to have a discussion about your relationship. Be careful how you phrase it though.

“Propose the chat like it’s collaboration. This is about you as a couple, not just you having a problem. Saying something like ‘I feel like we’ve been having a few issues about X, Y and Z and it would be good to talk this through together’ is less likely to scare them and get their heckles up,” says Dr Janet.

Pick a good time to have your chat. Right before you both dash off to work, or late at night isn’t the best plan. You want to both be relaxed and rested, not tired and cranky.

OK, we’re ready to actually talk… but HOW?

The point is to share your feelings, and then invite them to share theirs.

Most importantly, watch your language. “I feel” is always going to go down better than “you always.” And avoid projecting motivations onto your partner, e.g. “You do this because…” They’ll automatically get defensive.

Don’t think that just one chat will sort everything out either – it may be a process rather than a quick-solve five-minute convo. You may need to go away, think again, regroup, and then have another chat. Try not to worry if it’s not solved instantly.

What if they just won’t listen to me? Or keep telling me I’m wrong?

Note: Your feelings are never ‘wrong’ and they should never be dismissed. If your partner is dismissing them, that’s sending you quite a clear message. Yes, what’s triggered these feelings may be out of perspective thoughts, perhaps caused by a misunderstanding. But you still need to discuss together where your feelings have come from and why you’re having them, not just be told they’re incorrect.

“It’s very possible to get undermined in these conversations,” says Dr Janet. “It’s important to be aware of when you’re in an emotional state and to take time out – even if you’re right in the middle of the conversation.”

If you feel you’re veering off-track and nothing helpful is getting achieved, don’t be afraid to stop. It may take a couple of tries, and sometimes it may feel like pulling teeth, but learning how to talk to each other – and more importantly argue effectively – will be worth it in the long run. For both of you.

Photo of couple on phones by Shutterstock

Next Steps

  • Visit Madly in Love to discuss mental health and relationships, share stories and get support and advice.
  • Got a worry about relationships? Whatever the question, get free anonymous advice from one of our relationship experts.
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  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By Holly Bourne

Updated on 07-Aug-2014

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