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Whether you're married, dating or single, there are ways to cultivate more meaningful conversations with the people in your life. All it takes is a more mindful approach. "It is easy for people to get caught up in the busyness of life and to neglect their relationship," says Karen Hirscheimer, a Toronto psychotherapist who specializes in couples counselling. "People stop putting time and energy into nurturing it. Like a garden that has to be tended to, a relationship needs care and attention."
Give your relationship the attention it deserves with these eight techniques for opening up the lines of communication in your relationship.
1. Lighten the mood
"Sometimes bringing good energy to a situation with fun activity can go a long way," says Hirscheimer. "This can also be a good idea to try when words do not seem to be working, in other words, when the conversation does not seem constructive. Suggesting an activity that you know you both enjoy can be great."
This can be from the comfort of your couch or at your local comedy club. The important part is relieving tension. "Nothing beats having fun together or sharing some laughs to bring back a light-hearted feeling," says Hirscheimer. "This can often open up new possibilities for more productive conversations around previously stuck issues, or in some cases, the new experiences may help release the earlier grievances, especially if they were minor.”
If your sense of humour is different than that of your partner, games are another way to get playful together. For those who are overly competitive (in other words, sore losers), choose something that won't end with a winner and a loser, such as a co-op video game. (Monopoly can have the power to tear couples apart.) The activity shouldn't get too serious. Remember: The point is to have fun together so that you're more comfortable and relaxed around each other, and more willing to open up.
2. Empathize with your partner
"When people feel misunderstood, slighted, shut out, rejected, not valued or unfairly treated by their significant other, it is important to discuss these sensitive matters so that amends can be made and so that a new awareness about each other's sensitivities can be attained," says Hirscheimer.
Avoid communication pitfalls, such as loaded phrases ("We need to talk"), and validate your partner's feelings and concerns in an effort to show you understand. "Delivery matters," says Hirscheimer. "It's important to come from a loving place." Acknowledge the other person's position, use positive wording and finish by asking for an agreement: For example, 'I know you've been really busy at work, but I miss you and I'm wondering if we can set aside some time to do something fun together. Would that be OK with you?'
3. Avoid the closeness bias
Those of us in relationships often assume that our partners are privy to all of the information we have and, as a result, overestimate our ability to communicate with them. In fact, studies out of Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., found that we're often better at communicating with strangers than with our significant other or close acquaintances. Try to take the perspective of your partner and leave assumptions at the door.
4. Find new ways to strengthen your bond
Take a class (dance, cooking…anything goes) or pick up a new hobby that you and your partner can both enjoy. Experiencing something new together is a way for couples to bond. "It allows for new experiences together that can enhance the relationship," says Hirscheimer. It can also give you conversation fodder if you find you're running out of things to say to one another. New and exciting experiences have the added bonus of releasing mood-enhancing dopamine.
5. Turn mundane activities into shared experiences
If you simply don't have time to invest in new activities, consider making the best of everyday ones. Even though it might save time divvying up chores and errands between the two of you (maybe he preps dinner while you pick up the kids up from hockey practice), break from tradition and spend that time together, instead. "Since we have to do these things to get by in life, why not make it fun?" asks Hirscheimer. Turn grocery shopping, cooking, the morning commute and other mundane tasks into enjoyable experiences that allow you to reconnect.
6. Let communication evolve naturally
Don't mistakenly assume the most meaningful conversations happen when you're looking your partner in the eye. Taking a less intimidating stance can let your partner feel at ease about discussing uncomfortable or quarrelsome topics. "You don’t necessarily have to be face-to-face to re-establish a connection," says Hirscheimer. "Sometimes just being in each other's presence in a peaceful way can help with reconnecting, whether it be doing something very adventurous together or just taking in the beauty of nature together." Rather than sitting down with your partner to talk, discuss your relationship during a walk in the park or other activity that allows you to engage more naturally.
7. Redefine physical intimacy
If you feel communication has stalled in your relationship, it makes sense that you'd want to fix the problem by talking. But sometimes doing rather than speaking is the key to opening up the lines of communication. Sexual intimacy is no doubt a bonding experience, but couples massage or cuddling can also foster connectedness. Even 20 seconds of hugging can release oxytocin, a hormone that can intensify feelings of love and attraction. It's important to note that, in a heated discussion, some men find physical contact overwhelming, so proceed with caution when laying an assuring hand on your partner’s shoulder during a difficult conversation.
8. Know when to back off
How your partner reacts to attempts to talk will vary depending on the circumstance, so you should assess the situation before cornering your partner, says Hirscheimer. "If you know your partner is having an exceptionally stressful week at work, you may just want to give space."
When a week stretches into months and your attempts to reconnect go unreciprocated, consider reaching out to a therapist for professional help. If your partner is shutting you out entirely, that may be a sign of more serious issues at the heart of your relationship, notes Hirscheimer.
Looking for activities that you can do to bond with your partner? Check out these tips on how to keep your relationship exciting!