Consider the following scenario: Something frustrating happened at work and you feel emotional. You come home and your partner asks, "Why are you so upset?"

You reassure your partner, "It's nothing. What should we eat?"

Your partner insists, "You really should tell me what's wrong. I tell you when something's bothering me."

How much do you want to tell them about what happened?

What if they had said, "I can feel that something is bothering you… If at some point you want to talk about it, I would be happy to listen."

Would you be more likely to confide in your partner?

To Open Up or Close Down? How You Communicate Matters Most

In romantic relationships, as with any close relationship, opening up or closing down during conversations can be risky. This is true whether you are the one asking for disclosure or the one deciding whether to disclose. Pressuring your partner to talk can backfire or lead to a fight. If you don't open up; your partner can feel hurt or might feel that you are not invested in the relationship. So how do you manage these day-to-day interactions with your partner without damaging your relationship? Better yet, how can you improve your relationship using open communication?

Being Supportive (Rather than Controlling) Helps with Open Communication

We decided to find out whether respecting one another 's individuality—what we call autonomy support—during conversations would make one more accepting of their partner's wishes, even when these wishes went against their own. Autonomy-supportive strategies starkly contrast with controlling strategies, which include talk that is pressuring, commanding, or threatening.

Autonomy-supportive strategies seem like an obvious key to fostering good communication and relationship satisfaction. However, more often than not, people use controlling strategies when their desires come into conflict with their partners' desires. So how do these two communication strategies help or hinder couples' relationships?

We conducted two studies that measured autonomy-supportive and controlling strategies in couples' conversations. In one study, we asked couples to consider two hypothetical situations in which (a) their partner wanted them to talk about something that worried them, and (b) their partner didn't want to talk and wanted them to drop the topic. We then asked how acceptable the two strategies seemed and whether the partner would be effective in getting their wishes using those strategies. 

In the second study, we examined what happened in real-life couple conversations. Here, we put each partner of a couple into the 'asker' or ' talker' role. Askers were told to try to get their partner to open up about topics they hadn't previously discussed as a couple (such as whether they should have kids). Meanwhile, talkers decided whether to share their thoughts and feelings on these topics. We then analyzed these discussions for askers ' and talkers' use of supportive and controlling strategies in getting their partners to open up (askers) or deciding whether to disclose (talkers).

We learned that having autonomy-supportive communication with your partner involves:

  • Acknowledging the feelings and perspectives of the other person
  • Expressing genuine interest and concern for them
  • Offering flexibility regarding timing, content, or depth of conversations

Partners in both studies perceived that, compared to controlling strategies, autonomy-supportive strategies…

  • Were more acceptable and effective in getting the talkers to open up
  • Were more acceptable to askers when talkers wanted to close down the conversation (Study 1)
  • Related to better relationship satisfaction (Study 2)

And, as one might expect, controlling strategies like criticizing, ordering, or invalidating the partner to force them to open up is less effective for getting them to talk and may even make them feel worse about the relationship. However, despite the advantages of autonomy-supportive strategies, controlling strategies were more often used in real-life discussions among couples.

These results highlight the importance of autonomy-supportive talk in couples' communication, but unfortunately such talk is not frequently used by couples in real life.

Want to Have More Open, Willing Conversations with Your Partner?

Here are some examples of how you could start your conversation:

  • I'm available if you want to talk about what happened.
  • Why don't we take a moment and sit down together to talk?
  • Something seems to be bothering you. How was your day?

Similarly, you could successfully help your relationship even if you don't want to talk by saying things like:

  • I love how much you care for me, but I would prefer not talking about it for now.
  • It hasn't been a good day, and at this moment I'd really prefer to think about something else.

For Further Reading

Kil, H., Allen, M. P., Taing, J., & Mageau, G. A. (2022). Autonomy support in disclosure and privacy maintenance regulation within romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 29(2), 305-331.

Hali Kil is Assistant Professor at Simon Fraser University (BC, Canada) and studies how parents can help children flourish, with a focus on mindfulness, emotion regulation, and immigrant and ethnoracial minority family well-being.

Geneviève A. Mageau is Full Professor at the Université de Montréal (QC, Canada) and studies the nature, determinants, and outcomes of autonomy support. She has a particular interest in how parental structure and autonomy support can coexist within relationships.

Marie-Pier Allen is a Clinical Psychologist at an outpatient psychiatric clinic at the Institut en Santé Mentale de Montréal (QC, Canada) and specializes in adults suffering from severe mood and anxiety disorders with comorbidity. She also works in private practice with adults presenting a variety of mental conditions.