Just the Two of Us: Communicating as a Couple

February’s got us navigating all the feels. With Valentine's Day around the corner, we wanted to dive into what really makes a partnership work (spoiler: it’s not all piña coladas and getting caught in the rain). We asked couples therapists (and real life couple!) Kaitlin and Paul Kindman for some advice on how to be best for your boo.

What are the most common issues partners come into your practice trying to resolve?

Often people come to us because they’ve reached an impasse in their relationship and need additional support. Common conflicts occur around sex and intimacy, navigating finances, household responsibilities/parenting, unmet emotional or relational needs, communication breakdowns, or an affair or breach of trust. People also seek help in bridging the blending of families or navigating alternative relationship structures and styles (like polyamory or kink). Sometimes partners even reach for relationship therapy PROACTIVELY to build skills to promote intimacy and navigate conflict before problems start!

We know it’s all about communication, but what are some specific tools we can use to improve how we communicate with our partners?

We work with intimate partners (and our individual clients) to build insight and tools to (1) regulate emotions during conflicts, so that opportunities for more effective communication exist. When we get heated in conflict, we’re very likely to have our nervous systems jump in to protect us as if we’re fighting for our lives. And if we’re fighting for survival, we better win, right? Thus, we can quickly become very defensive, emotionally attacking or shutdown, and sometimes even physically aggressive. What’s not available to us when this happens? Empathy. Care. Intimacy. All things that promote connection with our loved ones and give us the ability to compromise and collaborate to have our needs met.

So what do we do? You probably hear it all the time (because it works!), but first start by taking some deep breaths to slow down and soothe your nervous system. If that doesn’t work, consider asking for a time out for a few minutes to do whatever works for you to calm the energy that wants to fight, flee, or shutdown during the conflict (i.e. go for a walk, meditate, do some yoga poses, work out, call a friend, pet an animal, or put on a song and dance it out!)

Next, you (2) identify your emotions and needs. Once you are a little calmer, ask yourself “What Am I Feeling?” Feelings = Emotions (excited, frustrated, sad, lonely, anxious, joyful, silly, etc.) Then ask yourself “What am I needing?” and/or “What am I not getting?” If you’re not sure, think about the thing that you’re feeling upset about. Your need is likely that!

We often refer to this simple list of emotions and common relational needs from Nonviolent Communication to pull from. It sounds silly, but it can be very helpful to use when this is all new to you! We actually give sheets like this to our clients to work from in session.

Phrases like, “I’m feeling like ____”, “I’m feeling that ______”, “He/She/They are wrong,” ARE NOT FEELINGS. They are evaluations/judgments and will likely key up your (and your partners’) nervous system even more!

The next step is to (3) communicate your emotions and needs to your partner in a way that they are more likely to hear you and you can collaborate on resolution. When you want to comment on another’s actions/behaviors (which you do, let’s be real) try to say it from an observing place, as in without judgment or evaluation and try to keep to how YOU are impacted. Also, try to avoid concrete language (always/never, right/wrong, all/nothing, etc.) as this kind of speech is likely to get your partner defensive/aggressive again.

Here’s an example of a conflict phrased in two very different ways. With the first example, the conflict resolution is unlikely:

  • “I can’t believe you didn’t feed the kids when you said you would, so I come home and have to do EVERYTHING! You NEVER follow through on anything! I just can’t count on you to support me at all.”

But phrasing the same conflict from an observational, non-judgmental place is more likely to lead to a shared resolution:

  • “When you say you’re going to feed the kids once you get home and I come home late and they aren’t fed (observation), I feel overwhelmed by the amount we have to do before bedtime and disappointed that you didn’t follow through (emotion/impact). I want to be able to count on you (need for support), what got in the way today?”

Finally, (4) have compassion for yourself and your partner! Communicating this way is challenging and takes practice. The worst thing we can do is give up quickly on trying new tools when we slip into old habits. Both of us know the science and tools and teach them to our clients, and STILL sometimes are far from warm and communicative with each other!

No relationship is perfect, and there are going to be disagreements that can escalate into full blown fights. What are your tips on how to fight fair?

Ask yourself: “do I want to win or do I want to stay partnered?!” When fights get into wrong/right, good/bad, my way/the highway territory, we’re standing in our corners of the ring and, as we mentioned above, little to no intimacy or empathy is created. If we’re fighting fair, we’re fighting to have connection and ideally, to resolve the issue. If we’re fighting to win, resolution goes out the window.

Fighting fair means not holding the relationship hostage. When we make threats about our commitment, we undermine the top principles of healthy relationships: safety and security. We must give our partner the benefit of the doubt, and show up with curiosity about their experience in an attempt to understand where they are coming from and bridge our differences. Threatening to leave/end the relationship only works to pull the rug out from under our partner’s feet.

That being said, not threatening to leave the relationship does not mean that you should not leave an escalating fight. Rather, if you are noticing a conflict is becoming more heated we encourage you to take a time out, because emotional and physical safety is always a top priority. When taking a break, be gentle and explicit about your intention. Saying something as simple as “I think I need to cool off. I love you, I’ll be back in an hour,” will help you take the space you need and help your partner trust in your commitment to the relationship. This will hopefully set you up for a more compassionate conversation when you return.

If you could give three rules/mantras/words to live for couples, what would they be?

Wow! That’s a hard one! We tend to shy away from rules or one-size-fits all approaches because each relationship is unique and different in its own way and what works or doesn’t for one partnership might have a different effect for another! Different strokes for different folx! ;)

That being said, one thing that has really stuck with us and resonates with our approach of utilizing our human wiring, is to avoid important discussions or fighting in situations where you aren’t (safely) able to look at one another, like in the car. We read this somewhere (likely in Stan Tatkin’s Wired for Love), and it instantly made sense to us.

Part of our brain that helps us to access empathy for others’ experiences are our mirror neurons, whose job it is to fire when we observe the actions or emotions of another person. The neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other person, as though it was us originating the behavior ourselves. This mirroring helps us to understand the behavior and intentions of others, giving us access to feel and imagine what their experience is like. If we aren’t looking at one another (i.e. when sitting side-by-side in the car) we aren’t setting ourselves up for our mirror neurons to come online.

Instead, when we are sitting facing one another, we have the opportunity to powerfully communicate nonverbally our intention to show up and value our partner’s experience. We can give our undivided attention to them and prioritize doing so over other distractions, like playing on our phones! This communicates care and commitment to them and to the relationship, and sets us up for successful communication and navigation of conflict.

What does being in a loving, healthy partnership look like to both of you?

Kaitlin: As I can’t say what a healthy partnership looks like for others, I’ll speak for myself and what a loving partnership has looked like for me personally.

  • It first means having safety, building trust, and feeling secure, AND doing everything I can to reflect that so Paul feels this too. This requires being invested in learning what I need to feel secure in my partnership, directly asking for these needs to be met, as well as committing to learning about what makes Paul feel secure as well. Having a secure foundation lays the groundwork for success in navigating conflict, having intimacy, relationship resilience, and enjoying each other!

  • Secondly, a commitment to full transparency and vulnerably sharing about our experiences. Saying the scary things and finding out that Paul can handle them has been incredible. Also, we don’t let frustrations or conflicts go on too long without confronting them, because we share a commitment to these values.

  • Lastly, HUMOR! I can’t imagine having a loving partnership without leaning into silliness, playfulness, and joking in some of life’s most serious moments. When Paul and I have conflict, one of us tends to poke fun at the ridiculousness of our argument and that brings levity and the perspective to find connection and collaborate again.

Paul: I have to agree with my wife on this one. Safety, security, transparency and humor are some of the most important aspects of a loving, healthy partnership for me - maybe that’s why we’re still happily married after nearly 6 months!

  • To this already great list, I would add having shared values, a willingness to experience discomfort in order to grow, a commitment to becoming an expert on your partner - both in the streets and between the sheets.

  • One of the things I love most about our relationship is that, even during challenging moments, I can always lean into the fact that we value a lot of the same things - it reminds me that we are actually on the same team, even when it feels like we are miles apart.

  • We also both recognize that growing together as a couple is bound to include some very difficult, even painful moments and experiences. I am grateful that we are both (usually) willing to lean into the discomfort because we know that growth will spring forth from those storms.

  • Finally, I really appreciate that we are both committed to continuing to learn about one another and becoming adept at giving our partner what the are needing in the moment. This is one part intuition, and one part openness to feedback. We strive together to be the most caring stewards of one another that we can be - which seems like a necessary ingredient in loving, healthy partnership.

After hearing all of this, I desperately want to pitch a reality show to Netflix called “Killin’ Konflict with the Kindmans”...it’s basically just following you guys around while you thoughtfully and lovingly address issues of conflict with compassion and empathy. But seriously, thank you for giving us a peek into your practice and marriage! We can’t wait to have you back later this month to discuss the partners we don’t get to choose...that’s right, we’re taking on the parents next.

About our experts:

Kaitlin Kindman, LCSW (she/her) received her degree as a Master of Social Work from New York University and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the state of California.

Paul Kindman, LMFT (he/him) received his degree as a Master of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, Los Angeles and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of California.

Together, Paul & Kaitlin are the lead therapists and co-owners of Kindman & Co., a group therapy practice in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood. They provide counseling for individuals, intimate relationships, and groups, and have recently started to offer co-therapy, working with partnerships together as a couple.

We had to get the backstory on how they became partners in work and love (because we’re nosey like that):

The Kindmans are just your average married couple, where both partners are therapists. When hanging out with them, you can expect to hear a lot of “How did that make you feel?”and “Say more about that…” and partake in the universally-beloved games of emotional risk-taking, vulnerability dominos, and Name that Emotion! sing-a-longs.

Paul and Kaitlin met through a Cards Against Humanity game night at The Relational Center, a local nonprofit community counseling center, where both trained and practiced during their clinical internship years. Kaitlin thought Paul was very cute, Paul maintains he didn’t really notice her, but a shared love of vulnerability, animals, and pizza quickly brought them together. When not being therapists, you can find them at the movies or at home with their three cats: Bear, Bug, and Bumble, and their dog-ter, Eloise “Weezie” Nevertheless-She-Persisted Kindman.

Want to Learn More:

If you’re interested in learning more about Paul & Kaitlin and their therapy practice, please visit their website at www.kindman.co or follow them on Instagram. If you would like to book a therapy consultation, give feedback on this article, or just say “hi,” feel free to shoot them an email at kaitlin@kindman.co & paul@kindman.co.


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