3 Cardinal Rules of Communication in Relationships

cardinal-rule. Noun. (plural cardinal rules) A fundamental rule, upon which other matters hinge.

Communication is KEY for the success of any relationship, especially the one with your partner. Many couples avoid conflict altogether. This is not helpful nor effective because it does not lead to fulfillment or satisfaction. It usually becomes a breeding ground for resentment, anger, and tension.

Here are three cardinal rules of communication that I have seen come up in my work with individuals working towards relationship satisfaction:

Cardinal rule #1: Do not stay silent.

Choosing avoidance is a temporary solution. That thing your partner did to upset you will not go away. It will not magically get better on its own. The snowball of anger and resentment will get bigger as it rolls downhill. 

What happens next is a “kitchen sink fight” (every issue from the past 5-10 years is on the table) or a big explosion of anger from the aforementioned silent party.

Cardinal rule #2: Communicate with respect during a conflict.

Name-calling, yelling, slamming doors, etc. will not produce resolution.  It may help temporarily let off steam and give your argument a dramatic effect, but it will hurt the overall goal of harmony (assuming that’s the goal). 

Loving and respecting your partner doesn’t stop during a conflict. You can communicate dissatisfaction, hurt feelings, confusion, or despair without resorting to tactics that come out like verbal bullets. If you’re not able to communicate without doing these things, it’s OK to take the time to cool down before addressing the issue.

Cardinal rule #3: Don’t ask questions when you need to make a statement.

I.cannot.emphasize.this.enough. Do not ask a question when you are implying how you feel about the other’s behavior, or the question is actually a judgment.

These questions sound like, "Why would you criticize what I’m eating when you know I’m sensitive about my weight?" “Why would you put that there? It looks horrible.” “Why would you say that?”

This indirectly communicates that a.) you didn’t like what they said or did, b.) your feelings are hurt, and c.) you are criticizing them in return. Wait, what? Yes, one question can communicate all of that.

Why is this so hard? It’s difficult to communicate clearly in a way that honors your feelings without judging the other person because it’s vulnerable. We are afraid to express our feelings and set boundaries. However, that is what this situation requires, and it’s the way to build a better connection.

What can one say instead of the dreaded question-as-statement trap? "It really hurts my feelings when you comment on my food. Managing my food and weight is a sensitive and personal issue for me. I’d appreciate it if you would not comment on it unless I ask you for your advice." This may sound like “something a therapist would say” on a game show, but you are allowed to put your own spin on it.

It’s important to cover these areas when expressing the sentiment: express your hurt, explain why you are hurt, set the boundary or limit, and clarify what you’d prefer in the future.

If this all feels very far off and overwhelming, I understand. It’s not a destination to reach, but rather skills to learn, practice, and build upon.

If you’d like to do a deep dive with your partner to work on your communication, check out Relationship Rescue: Communication CPR, an in-person one-day workshop for couples to devote time and attention to improving communication, and therefore their level of connection and intimacy.