Signs of Bad Communication in a Relationship (And What To Do About It)
Communication is often listed as the most important piece of any relationship, romantic or otherwise. Another less-known (and less-fortunate) truth is that while communicating is easy, communicating well is hard. Everyone learns to communicate—or not communicate—differently, much of which happens in our developmental years. And while our individual means of communication may seem natural to us, they aren’t always natural to others, and vice versa.
This, among other reasons, is why communication is maybe the most challenging part of a romantic partnership. Poor communication is often the root of many relationship issues, and can oftentimes go unnoticed until it boils into a larger problem. If you found yourself reading this, you’re likely dealing with communication problems in your relationship. You may be asking yourself questions like:
- Why do I struggle to communicate with my partner?
- Why does it feel like my partner and I are speaking different languages?
- Why won’t my partner openly communicate with me?
- Is it true that lack of communication in a marriage leads to divorce?
While this can be a painful experience, the good news is that you’re not alone. The even better news is that with a little intention, a bit of teamwork, and some help from a professional, you can drastically improve your communication skills as a couple. And Well Marriage Center is here to help you take those first steps. Below, we’ll cover some common communication pitfalls, what good communication looks like, and some steps you can take alongside your partner (and a therapist) toward a better partnership.
Is Lack of Communication a Reason to Break Up?
It doesn’t have to be! If you and your partner are willing to make changes together, communication patterns can be improved. Usually, when there is no communication in a relationship, it’s a sign that either one or both partners’ needs aren’t being met, feelings aren’t being expressed, or a partner isn’t feeling listened to. These are all things you can work on. And with the help of a therapist, it becomes much easier. Having the outside perspective of a therapist also helps to identify some negative patterns couples often face when communicating.
What Does Toxic Communication Look Like?
If you and your partner are struggling with communication, you’ll likely see one or more of the “Four Horsemen” in your relationship. Discovered by expert John Gottman, these four toxic communication patterns, if allowed to persist, prove very detrimental to a partnership:
- Criticism | Verbally attacking someone on a personal level, rather than addressing the real issue
- Contempt | Intentional, sometimes passive-aggressive, expressions of disrespect
- Defensiveness | Avoiding responsibility for a problem or listening, usually by “playing the victim”
- Stonewalling | Complete withdrawal from the relationship, effectively stopping communications
While the presence of all Four Horsemen at once is a high predictor of separation, having one pop up in your relationship does not doom your chances. Many times, people that communicate in these ways don’t realize they’re doing it, or may not even have control of it. Therapists like those at Well Marriage commonly deal with these patterns in couples, and will help identify solutions tailored to the couple’s unique situation. Let’s look at each of the Four Horsemen in detail, including some unhealthy ways to communicate during a disagreement—and healthier alternatives for them.
The First Horseman: Criticism
It’s completely normal to get frustrated, or even angry with things your partner does. Maybe you can’t stand how they load the dishwasher, or maybe they forget it’s your birthday. While it’s healthy to express frustration, it’s problematic when that frustration is directed at the person, rather than the behavior. If criticism does not address the actual issue, the criticized partner can feel blindsided, leading them to Defensiveness (the Third Horseman).
When a partner is angry about something their lover has done (or not done), it’s important to focus on expressing feelings rather than attacking. You do this by mainly using “I” statements, as opposed to “you” statements. When we criticize, we are projecting a meaning onto our partner’s actions or inactions, and that meaning is usually more of a reflection on us than our partner. As an example, let’s say someone feels they’re not getting enough help from their partner with household chores:
- Instead of: “You never help me clean up around here; you’re so lazy and selfish!”
- Try: “I get really frustrated when you don’t help me clean up the house.”
The Second Horseman: Contempt
Usually caused by long-term, simmering negative emotions, contempt is a driver for active mistreatment of a partner. If you find yourself feeling superior to your partner or “better than” them, contempt is typically the root cause. This can come out as verbal abuse, dismissing their feelings, or mocking them in a passive-aggressive way. Contempt is the single greatest predictor of a breakup, but like all the other horsemen, it can be solved.
Doing away with contempt requires an intentional, consistent environment of gratitude and respect. That means not only appreciating the great things about your partner when things are going well, but acknowledging what they contribute when you are frustrated with them as well. Oftentimes, contempt is a long-standing pattern that will take time to unravel—something therapists are expertly equipped to handle. Let’s refer back to the household chores example again, but with a solution for contemptuous behavior:
- Instead of: “Oh, it’s fine—I’ll clean the house again, alone, like I always do. Thanks a lot.” *scoffs*
- Try: “I know you’ve been really busy lately, but could you please help me today? I’d really appreciate it.”
The Third Horseman: Defensiveness
While this Horseman showing up is often in response to the First Horseman (Criticism), some people are just naturally defensive—usually because of some past trauma they’ve experienced. It’s normal to want to defend yourself when you feel attacked, but the problem is that sometimes, people can feel attacked when a partner is simply trying to express themselves. In this case, defensiveness is, for lack of a better term, a defense mechanism against accepting responsibility or listening to a partner communicate.
A relationship where your guard is always up doesn’t allow for vulnerability, connection, or intimacy. On top of that, being defensive is really just a roundabout way of placing blame back on the other partner. Whenever you’re feeling defensive, it’s always a good idea to check in and see where it’s coming from. Sometimes, it’s absolutely warranted, like if you’re being unjustly accused of something. In many cases, however, a little more empathy and listening will help you lower your guard with your partner. It also usually means accepting responsibility for at least part of the current problem.
Let’s say, in that household chores example, you’re now the partner who hasn’t been helping out. Your partner approaches you one night and says “Hey, I’d really like your help cleaning the kitchen next time. I get really frustrated when I feel like I’ve got to do this alone.”
- Instead of: “You act as if I never help with anything! I have a job too, you know.”
- Try: “I’m sorry I didn’t help you. I had a long day at work and just crashed. I’ll help out next time.”
The Fourth Horseman: Stonewalling
The fourth and final Horseman, stonewalling is arguably the most damaging behavior to engage in. When we stonewall, we completely seal ourselves off from our partner—physically, emotionally, and mentally—thus abandoning all attempts to solve the issue at hand. The effects of lack of communication in a relationship are profoundly negative, especially over long periods of time. The effects can leave the other person with lingering self-doubt, isolation, and depression. Thankfully, this behavior isn’t something that is just going to pop up without warning; it typically takes prolonged periods of exposure to the other three Horsemen before stonewalling occurs.
It’s important to be aware of when you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed. Oftentimes, you can stop a shutdown before it happens by pausing an argument and taking some time to self-soothe. Some topics can be difficult for couples to have rational conversations about, and it’s not always the best idea to press the issue in the moment.
Let’s say the household chores disagreement turns into a heated argument about bandwidth. If you feel like you’re at your emotional limit:
- Instead of: Shutting down, exploding in a rage, ignoring your partner, or storming out…
- Say: “Could we take a break and talk about this a little later, please? I’m feeling overwhelmed.”
While the above suggestions can provide a roadmap for the Four Horsemen, fixing communication patterns does not happen overnight, even with genuine effort and intention. To complicate matters even further, there are more than just the Four Horsemen when it comes to communication patterns. A skilled therapist will be knowledgeable about all of the communication pitfalls and able to tailor solutions to your unique situation.
Truly changing how we communicate takes time, and usually an outside perspective to help maintain objectivity as the relationship improves. This is just one of the many reasons having a therapist by your side can make this so much easier; they can help you navigate these communication patterns and more easily fix problems as they arise.
What Causes Poor Communication in a Relationship?
Each relationship is unique, so the causes for communication issues vary widely. Here are a few common culprits:
- Unmet Needs | More often than not, this is the primary cause of communication breakdowns: a need that is not being fulfilled for one or both partners. These may be needs that the partner themselves has not expressed, perhaps because they don’t even know what they’re longing for. A healthy relationship requires each individual to be aware of what they require in a relationship; after all, how can you ask for what you want if you don’t even know what that is? Some common examples of unmet needs are a lack of quality time, lack of vulnerability between partners, and feelings of insecurity or jealousy.
- Past Traumas | Therapists will often speak ad-nauseam about how “everything goes back to your childhood,” but that’s because there is a lot of truth in that statement—particularly when talking about communication. As children, we adapt to the patterns around us that best meet our needs for survival, and those patterns aren’t always healthy to carry into adulthood. This is not to place blame on ourselves or even our parents, but it’s our responsibility as healthy romantic partners to understand how our upbringing has shaped us. Perhaps your partner communicates in a way that an abusive parent communicated to you as a child, but they don’t realize it. If you don’t realize the problem either, it becomes a lot harder to pinpoint, much less solve.
- External Stressors | Like the saying goes, “life happens.” Any number of unexpected events can add a huge amount of stress to our lives, which inevitably affects how we relate to others. That stress doesn’t always have to be negative events, either; positive life events like a new job or even a wedding can add abnormal amounts of stress. In these times, it’s more important than ever to be mindful in establishing good communication patterns.
- Unhealthy Communication Styles | As we discussed earlier, there are many unhealthy ways to communicate that damage future efforts to share between partners. Contemptuous behavior, disregarding feelings, or bottling up problems until they explode are just a few ways that partners damage their relationships. To reiterate, having these issues does not mean the relationship can’t be saved; it just means there is a need for more intentional communication, and likely the help of an experienced professional.
What Is Good Communication Between Couples?
Since each relationship is different, “good” communication will look different for each couple. That said, here are a few general guidelines you can apply, all of which a therapist can give you tools for:
- Be aware of your own needs, feelings, and shortcomings in communication—we all have them!
- Talk about things through a lens of how they make you feel.
- When frustrated with your partner, focus on their behavior—not their character.
- Listen to your partner, even when you don’t agree with them. There can be two valid viewpoints to any situation.
Well Marriage Center: Communication Is (Your) Key
If you’re wondering how to communicate better with your spouse or romantic partner, Well Marriage Center is here to help. Our therapists are experts in developing positive communication patterns for couples and can give you a variety of ways to improve communication in a relationship. We truly believe that any partnership can be improved, if both partners are willing to work together. No matter where you are in your relationship or what patterns you are seeing, no problem is too big to be solved.
Reach out to us anytime and schedule an appointment. We’ll be here when you’re ready.