The Gift of Effective Communication
in Intimate Relationships
By Elham (Ellie) Zarrabian, M.A.



Nearly one half of all marriages in the United States fail in the first four years. Racial tensions are rising and becoming more violent. The public’s approval of the government is as low as it has ever been in the past fifty years. International political crises remain unsolved for years at a time. These social, cultural and political breakdowns are great indications of a need for grand scale behavioral modifications. Today, perhaps more than ever, the human race can benefit from adopting more assertive behavior and effective communication in all relationships.

Assertive behavior is not synonymous with aggressive behavior. While assertiveness aims to resolve or explain situations with clear, concise and fair communication tactics, aggressive behavior accomplishes just the opposite. Aggressive communication is often accusatory, abrupt, tense, authoritarian and fear invoking. The receiver of the aggressive message often becomes uncomfortable and defensive, at which point, any chance of effective communication fully diminishes.   

Assertiveness is not merely a practice to obtain what one desires; rather, it is a behavioral modification, which can enhance all types of interpersonal relationships. Assertiveness requires one to lead a more examined and self-realized life style. In order to ensure a clear and concise mode of self-_expression and information exchange, an assertive individual pays very close attention to his or her timing, body language, delivery, volume, speech rate and eye contact while addressing others. Although adopting assertive behavior does not guarantee one hundred percent communication or conflict resolution success, it will undoubtedly decrease the frequency of breakdowns as well as confusing and painful arguments.

The next few paragraphs will concentrate on common breakdowns or dynamics between parents, children, lovers and partners. Also discussed, will be assertive methods for dealing with each type of breakdown.

Parents and Children  
Communication breakdowns occur between parents and their children for a variety of reasons. Be it a generation gap or a culture clash, parents and children all over the world share similar conflicts and resolutions.

1) Constructive Criticism
A major conflict between parents and their children is with the issue of criticism. Both parents and children can express criticism, but because of a parent’s role as a guardian and provider, it is often the child who mostly suffers the blows of criticism. When a parent chooses to criticize his or her child, it is most important to consider the audience and become sensitive to the delivery.

It is often wise to begin constructive criticism with a positive comment, a compliment or a confidence booster. Never follow the compliment with a “but,” for this word will almost always diminish the good feelings brought forth by the complimentary statements. Remembering not to use “but” or “however,” the parent should state the problem concisely. Examples of the problem should be mentioned for they will lend support for the criticism. The parent should remain calm and try to make the conversation brief in order to minimize the child’s discomfort. Having stated the problem briefly and to the point, any negative effects it may have resulted in should also be shared with the child. The parent should avoid using the word “you” for it will put the child on the defensive and defeat the purpose of the conversation.

Criticism should always be done on a one-to-one basis and always in private, to avoid any unforeseen or embarrassing problems. The end result of the conversation should be a mutual agreement upon an action or a next step, ideally on a high note.
2) Ask for feedback
Feedback should be welcomed. This shows the child that the parent cares enough to listen as well as criticize. When receiving feedback from a child, parents should try to listen as closely as possible to what the child is saying. If the parent feels the child’s critique is legitimate, then it is important to work on changing old behavior patterns or habits. A child witnessing the parent’s attempt to make changes feels cared about. This encourages the child to also make necessary behavior changes.

Lovers, life partners  & significant others
When two individuals choose to be with each other in an intimate relationship, they set out on a journey towards love, joy, anger, frustration and all other emotions known to a human. It is up to the individuals sharing this journey to ensure a more pleasant ride through the peaks and valleys. Opening the channels of communication and mutual respect can bring upon this assurance.

Communicating with a partner is comprised of both speaking openly about one’s ideas, feelings and goals and also listening. Often times we forget how important listening is when attempting to communicate effectively with our significant others. Becoming a better listener requires one to pay close attention to the words, gestures, body language, tone and true intent of the speaker. This is to maximize comprehension and minimize assumptions and confusion.

1) Active Listening
While engaged in effective or “Active Listening,” it is important to hear the actual words being spoken and not entertain any preconceived notions of what the speaker will say or mean. This will keep the listener more present to the topic of discussion and the flow of the conversation. As one partner is expressing him or herself, it is wise not to jump to conclusions but instead allow him or her to finish speaking. Jumping to conclusions while the speaker is still communicating prevents the listener from hearing important facts, which may be shared while he or she has “tuned out” or leaped ahead. As a partner expresses concern or frustration to the other, the listener should try to put him or herself in their partner’s place in order to better understand the points being made. Authors Fisher and Ury (1983), emphasize this point by stating:

Understanding their point of view is not the same as agreeing with it. It is true that a better understanding of their thinking may lead you to revise your own views about the merits of a situation. But that is not a cost of understanding their point of view — it is a benefit. It allows you to reduce the area of conflict, and also helps you advance your newly enlightened self-interest.

2) Paraphrase
Offer feedback to the speaker by paraphrasing statements that seem important to him or her. For example, after carefully listening to the individual for a while, then turn to them and say, “let me see if I understood you correctly,” here you can repeat what you heard them say. If you missed an important point, the other individual will often let you know.

3)Open-ended versus  Closed-ended questions
Close-ended questions typically require a “yes” or “no” response. For a better understanding of the other person’s thoughts and feelings, try and ask open-ended questions. These are questions that require the speaker to further explain and express their views on the topic, (i.e. “how did that make you feel?” or, “what do you plan on doing about it?” etc.)
4) Eye Contact    
Eye contact should be maintained with the speaking partner at all times in order to show interest in what is being said. The listener should be aware of his or her body language. For example, nodding understandingly will reassure and validate the speaking partner. Finally, when a statement is made which invites the listener to interrupt, he or she should respect the speaker’s view, make a mental note and comment on the statement once the speaker is finished. Rehearsing rebuttals to seemingly accusatory statements remove the listener from the actual conversation and end active listening.

5) Establish Boundaries
Possessing a well-defined comfort zone or boundary is a very healthy mental practice. A boundary can be perceived as an invisible shield against anything that makes an individual uncomfortable. Personal boundaries can help an individual prevent unwelcome mental and/or physical intrusions by others. For example, one can display their boundary by expressing disapproval of racial remarks or stereotypes verbally and/or physically (body language).

6) Avoid Passive/Aggressive  Behavior
Passive/aggressive behavior is a non-effective, yet common way of being in relationship with others, especially in close relationships. A person reacts in a passive aggressive manner when he or she holds anger but is not able to express it directly and constructively. Instead, they find other dysfunctional means of expressing their anger.

For example, in a husband and wife relationship, the wife is angry that the husband comes home late every night; instead of being able to express her anger directly, she finds other methods of releasing her feelings. This could be done through various ways such as withholding love and intimacy, blowing up at him over other minor issues or not attending parties with him.

Such behavior can be detrimental to the well-being of the relationship if not recognized and dealt with in a more constructive manner. In learning to express oneself clearly, directly and assertively, this situation can be remedied and avoided all together.  

In closing, adopting assertive behavior and using more effective communication skills such as the ones mentioned, can enhance all types of inter-personal relationships. It is important to realize an assertive life style takes work and practice. Assertiveness is an ongoing process requiring patience and persistence. The rewards of becoming a more realized, examined and assertive human, is a healthier and more fulfilling life.

For further reading, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Fisher, R. & Ury, W.

Ellie Zarrabian, M.A. has her degree in Transpersonal Psychology. She is a writer, healer and an educator in the areas of psychological growth, dream work, intuition, creativity and spirituality. Currently, she teaches at Santa Monica College and the University of Phoenix. She holds private sessions with individuals, couples and children in Beverly Hills, CA. For more information visit or call (310) 498-3573.

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