Communication has been one of the common themes that have come up during this series. This was not by accident! Communication is one of the biggest issues that cause conflict in relationships. Exploring the common struggles with communication in relationships can help provide insight into why or how you and your partner may be fighting and arguing. Also, exploring some common tools and techniques that can help increase and change communication for the better and hopefully, reduce the fighting and arguing going forward.
I’m going to break down each of the major communication problems that plague most relationships at one time or another. When these things happen in a relationship is not always bad or an omen that the relationship will fail. It is when these things become patterns and habits that relationships start to suffer, become hostile, and eventually fail.
I have seen 8 common themes with communication difficulties that come up in relationships, and exploring them will help to show how and why they can be problems in your relationship. These 8 themes are:
- Using “you” statements
- Making assumptions
- Not actively listening
- Being passive or indirect
- Not communicating at all
“You” statements can cause a regular discussion to go from calm to a full on fight. These statements come up more often than not and are difficult to control or even be aware of until it is pointed out.
When couples fight it is natural and human nature to point out what the other one is doing wrong which contributed to the struggle at hand. For example: Well, you didn’t… or You said you were going to… or You need to… These statements have one terrible outcome: to make the other partner defensive.
Once that partner goes on the defensive, they start to attack back and the fight escalates from there. “You” statements are forceful, blaming, and demeaning making one feel as if they are being ordered around. There are several other ways in which to communicate and get your point across in a healthy and non-threatening way.
Everyone has been guilty of this at some point or another. When the person we are listening to is part way through a statement, we jump in and finish it for them. Usually only to be followed by awkward silence or a, “No that’s not what I was going to say.”
We have all heard the common statement about when we assume: It makes an ASS of U and Me. This could not be more true. It makes the person doing the assuming feel foolish because they missed the mark and the person who gets cut off feels like they don’t matter. Making assumptions also leads to not fully listening to what the other person is saying and missing key points of information.
Not Actively Listening
Similarly to making assumptions, not using active listening skills can be a huge roadblock to good communication in marriages. This will lead to fights and arguments like the famous argument: Are you even listening to me!?
What happens to most people is they are listening to a story from their partner and something their partner says triggers a thought which takes them away from the conversation and into their head. There are so many things that can take away attention in this world – kids, cell phones, TV, pets – you name it, it can be a distraction.
When someone gets distracted, they tune out other information to attend to what drew the attention away. This leads to not fully hearing what is being said and leaving the other person feeling like they don’t matter. Active listening is a skill that becomes harder and harder the more technology we have around us. To use it and use it well takes a lot of practice – and then even more practice.
Being Passive or Indirect
Being passive is another major stumbling block for couples. Most people find that this happens when you are going out to eat. Where do you want to go for dinner? met with a response like, I don’t care or, Doesn’t matter to me.
Being passive is like asking your partner to read your mind. It is assuming that they will know or should figure out what you are talking about or thinking. Passive communication really should be labeled as lack of communication because you are not giving all the information to your partner.
Indirect communication is often done in a way when one partner does not know how to address an issue or verbalize it. They will make facial expressions showing displeasure, loud sighs, or will direct questions toward their partner like, Isn’t it true that people who look at their cell phone too much have a harder time sleeping? In that instance, the partner posing the question is voicing their feelings about a behavior their partner is doing, but hoping that being indirect will get the point across.
This generally does not work, as the partner who is the recipient of the indirect communication will just get angrier and upset at the passive aggressive nature of the comments rather than their partner just being direct and talking about what is bothering them.
Misinterpreting tends to be a very large area where communication difficulties can come from. This does tend to go along with #3, not actively listening, but it also has its differences, too. How many times have you listened to what was said, you responded and your partner did not take it at all the way you meant it? Most people have experienced this at some point – both on the giving and receiving end.
Misinterpretation happens a lot and is becoming more common with the growth of technology and the use of it for communication. The use of text messages is awful for this. So many times, when you get a text message, you ask yourself, What does that mean? or Did I say something wrong? or even Where did that come from?
We are often left wondering how the person is reacting and get worried about how and what they will say next. This can make you get defensive before the actual interaction has even started! Now you are on pins and needles when you see that person face-to-face, worrying about where they stand and how the interaction will go. This puts you on your guard about something that you may not have to worry about at all! As wonderful as technology is for communicating easily and quickly, it has not done much to help challenge and change some of the basic relationship problems and fight starters.
Avoidance is another large problem that brings on fights and arguments. Most people in life don’t want to face a possible situation in which they must talk about something difficult or painful. This can breed so much hostility in a relationship because a partner may not bring up the problems they are being affected by due to the fear of how the other person might react.
Now, this avoidance doesn’t have to be around major issues like an affair or wanting a divorce. It can also happen with small things like not addressing your sex life and telling your partner what you do or don’t want. It can show up in not wanting to address the habits that your partner has for fear of their reaction or hurting their feelings.
Avoidance happens far more than what people want to admit. Most people even avoid things individually like stepping on the scale, opening the credit card bill, or going to the doctor. Avoidance does not do much to help situations out, it generally only serves to make it worse in the long run.
This is a direct opposite response from avoidance. This common fight starter in relationships is usually one-sided, but can take a turn if both partners start attacking each other. I don’t mean attacking in the sense of suits of armor and swords attacking, although it may feel like that from time to time.
The attacking I’m referring to is the verbal attack. Words can be one of the most powerful tools couples have in their arsenal of things used to reduce conflict. They can be used for good and positive communication, or they can hurt the core and cause irreparable damage. Just when a cornered animal feels trapped and goes on the defensive, so does the partner that feels like they are being hurt, belittled, or shamed.
There can be several reasons why someone may verbally attack a partner, but the bottom line remains that once the attack starts, the hurt keeps coming. Generally, when attacking starts, all of the past hurts start to come pouring out and very hurtful things will be said because that person has been sitting on the pain for years sometimes and they all come out whether justified or not.
Not Communicating At All
This is the straw that usually breaks the camel’s back. Not communicating develops after some or all the above areas have been occurring in your relationship. When one partner does not feel like they are being heard they can often turn to not communicating at all. The common thought is, What’s the point? Nothing changes, anyway.
Generally, when one partner or both partners stop communicating, the problems that got them to that point in their relationship get worse and worse, driving them further apart. Not communicating does not help, again as I said about avoidance, not communicating makes the situation even worse.
When you are not communicating, everything comes to a screeching halt. Dr. John Gottman refers to this as stonewalling. This is when one partner feels like they are being completely overwhelmed that they just shut down, disengage and stop communicating. This can be a very difficult thing to address in a relationship, and can be very frustrating for the person who is trying to talk to the partner that shut down. Frustration can further brew, resentment can boil up, and all the hurts become amplified because one person or both are not communicating effectively if at all.
Keys to Overcoming Poor Communication
Let me highlight how a couple can have many of these communication difficulties and how they can shift and move from one problem pattern into another one. I once worked with a couple that had years of hurt and resentments built up. When I started working with them, I told them we needed to get the communication problems addressed first or the past hurts would not be able to be addressed.
We would talk about how a casual conversation would start out OK, then would lead to “you” statements being made. These “you” statements would point out what they perceived the other partner was not doing or what they did to cause the argument to start or continue. This would give way to misinterpretation. Here one of the partners (it would flip flop as to which one) would take what was being said and assume they knew what the person was going to say. They would react and get defensive before the other person finished their statement.
Once this would happen, the attacks would often start and all of the old hurts would come up. Once these attacks started, the fight would become very personal very quickly. They would begin to not hear the other person and would only focus on making the other partner hurt like they themselves were hurting.
They would trade insults and say completely hurtful things with no regard to the other partner. The attacks they would use would be full of past hurt, insults, put downs, and just plain demeaning language. After the initial blow up was slowing down, both partners would shut down and not communicate because that was easier than facing the constant fights. The good news is, that through therapy, they changed their communication patterns and learned different ways of addressing problems with each other to begin to move forward in a healthier more respectful way.
So now that we know the communication issues, let’s explore the ways to change the communication patterns to help get to a more positive place in your relationship.
1) Make time to communicate. Sounds pretty basic, huh? Try looking at how you will put aside time to communicate with your partner without distraction. Life gets busy – kids demand attention, jobs pull us away, technology interrupts.
There are so many things that work to pull couples apart, so it takes a very diligent effort to make this time sacred. Put it on the calendar and make it non-negotiable. At first try doing it for 20 minutes every couple of days. Once you get in the habit and swing of it, move up to daily time.
During this time of communication, make an effort to just talk. Find and bring a common topic to talk about in current events, bring up a positive memory, find something to talk about that you normally don’t. This helps to make conversing easier and takes the pressure of trying to make small talk and think of something on the fly.
You can both take turns with who will be in charge of bringing a topic to the discussion. This small talk is proven to be more effective and helpful in relationships than would bigger, harder topics. Ask questions about the small things. This way you are showing your partner that you are engaged in the conversation and have a genuine care for what it is that they are saying.
2) Actively listen. As you communicate, focus only on what your partner is talking about in that moment. When your mind wanders to something else, acknowledge that your mind wandered and then come back to the conversation.
One way to keep actively listening is to repeat or paraphrase back to your partner what you heard from them. For example: So it really sounds like you don’t like lasagna. This way you have now shown your partner that you heard the small details and held onto them. This allows your partner to feel like you care and are invested in the conversation at that moment, and bigger yet, you are invested in the relationship.
Being heard and having a good back and forth conversation helps to increase the connection between yourself and your partner and strengthen the foundation of your relationship moving forward.
3) Use “I” statements. We talked earlier about how detrimental and damaging “you” statements can be to a relationship. When you are talking with your partner don’t point the finger and blame them by saying “you”. Instead, focus on “I”. I feel upset when _____, I get hurt when_____, or I’m angry during_____.
These statements will do a much better job of diffusing the situation with your partner and disarm them from going on the attack in return. This allows better active listening to hear what your partner is saying, leading to a good positive interaction. Once you build this foundation, again you are setting the stage to allow this to happen again and again.
4) Walk away when needed. Sometimes during an argument or a fight, the tendency to go back to old habits of a talking to your partner will come back. Once you recognize that this happens, take a pause and walk away. Make sure to tell your partner that you are recognizing that you are taking a step back in communicating and want to regroup and come back when you are in a better state to use the new skills. I can almost assure you that your partner will respect you more and be more willing to walk away too, if it means that the conversation will be better.
5) Physically connect with your partner. Physical touch can be a huge part of the relationship and much of how we communicate is non-verbal. Make every effort to touch your partner, hold their hand, kiss their cheek, or give them a hug before work. When you combine the touch with the new positive communication changes, you are pushing the relationship forward into a better more effective direction.
6) Compliment your partner. Point out to your partner when you are happy with something they did. Give them a compliment when they look nice. Tell them something about them that you love or enjoy. When you put forth the effort to identify the little things you notice or like about your partner, you are paving the way to build a positive and ultimately more happy marriage.
Hopefully putting these tools into action can help increase the communication in your relationship. As you increase positive communication with your partner you start to connect in a whole new way which leads to creating the marriage that you want and deserve.
If you are struggling to put these tools into practice, then please reach out and get some support in doing this. Most people reach out for couples counseling when the problem has already been there for years. You do not need to wait for things to get bad to seek help!
I am a firm believer in using couples counseling as a tool to help make the marriage strong from the get go. It can help normalize expectations for both partners before you realize 10 years have gone by and you both see things differently. Couples counseling can also help create positive communication and connection before life strays off course and puts things into a negative tailspin.
There is hope for change, and you, your partner, and your marriage deserve change!
Until next time – live truly, love fully!