Feel like you’re hitting a brick wall every time you try and talk to your partner? It’s probably because your communication is out of whack. We’ve outlined the six most common communication issues in relationships, and how you can address them.
When couples are struggling, separating or divorcing, they’ll often say they are having “communication problems”. But what does that really mean?
What patterns of behaviour brought them to the surface, what do they look like, and what might be a way for couples to get through them? Paradoxically, while communication may be the problem, it will also usually be the solution.
Common communication problems in relationships
The six most common communication issues we see in couples are the following:
There’s an old joke that the couple out at dinner sitting in silence simply have nothing to say to each other anymore, after all those years together. However, in some couples, it may actually be the opposite; they may have so much to say, but all of it is impermissible, risky or sparks a full-blown argument. So silence reigns and the chasm between them grows.
2. Talking on repeat
Couples might feel they openly air a great deal, and in detail. But in fact, they may be going over and over the same ground, resulting in no change. Each might be able to predict, with considerable accuracy, exactly what the other is about to say, as they have played it out so many times before.
3. Defending and justifying
This is a communication killer, and significantly erodes the relationship overall. If one or both of you expresses a concern, and the only response you tend to get is denial or deflection, it’s hard to move forward, and couples will commonly feel at an impasse.
4. Control or righteousness
Not everyone sees the world as we do. Living with someone means being able to distinguish when we have the right to assert or insist on our own preferences, and when we have to compromise. For example, you might be a neat freak while your partner is much more relaxed. Saying “my way is better” will only lead to a power struggle and imply your partner is falling short – a sure fire way to get their back up.
5. Escalations and risk
Perhaps unsurprisingly, any “conversations” that quickly go off the rails, snowball, or result in yelling matches, name calling, dismissal and contempt, will also be unproductive, harmful and over time, erode the fabric of the relationship.
6. “I’ll change if you change”
This is a common quid pro quo that couples get into. Neither wants to put themselves on the line or be entirely accountable for their actions, so as soon as the other trips up in their commitment, all bets are off again.
Adaptation is key
Living with another person provides a lot of potential for irritation. Having differences, disputes and some scratchy moments is not uncommon, but it doesn’t have to mean very much. Being able to overlook things that really don’t matter in service of the big picture of what you have together is a huge relationship strength.
Early in a relationship this can be much easier to do, as you have so many positives in mind, making it easier to minimise the more challenging aspects of your partner. As the relationships progresses though, and the initial excitement settles into a more regular pattern of relating, then focusing on the bigger connection rather than those small irritations takes greater discipline.
Most couples carry a high level of differences that are never resolved. These could range from commitments to friends, housework and finances, exercise and self-care, in-law management, parenting, work ethic and domestic arrangements. However, the successful couple will learn to navigate these so they don’t get the better of them. They work out which battles to have, which are non-negotiable, and which are “live and let live”. Being able to adapt to new ways together provides growth for you both.
Tips for navigating better communication
Want to be one of those couples that can communicate more clearly with each other, once and for all? Here are our top pieces of advice, straight from the therapy room.
Start as you mean to go on
If your opening line is an accusation, then it’s all downhill from there. Instead, start by clearly stating what you’d like to achieve from the conversation. For example: “I’d like us to be closer and to find common ground. I’d like to find a way to discuss this differently.”
Pick your time
Organise a time when you can talk. Don’t ring during the middle of the workday, or pounce as soon as your partner comes through the front door. If you are breaking old habits, ask how it could be different. For example, “I just need you to hear me out for ten minutes. I don’t need you to problem solve.”
Own your own stuff
Reflect on your part in previous negative discussions, or how the issue is being progressed. Owning up to some of your own flaws or missteps is always more attractive and engaging, and models behaviour that your partner may then reciprocate. They may in turn be more willing to reflect on their own mistakes.
Be a leader and tolerate some vulnerability
Many people wrongly think that relationships should always be 50-50, in every single aspect of the partnership. But the truth is, one of you may contribute more in certain areas, and the other takes the lead in other areas. Be prepared to go out on some good, well-chosen limbs for the greater good of the relationship. Offer up what you can commit to, and don’t be distracted if your partner doesn’t match that straight up. If one person changes, the other inevitably shifts a little too. For example, if you commit to being the one to organise date nights, then the fact that it happens will benefit you both.
Find common ground
Remember that if one of you is unhappy with how things are going, inevitably the other may be struggling too, even if it doesn’t look that way. When arguing, couples often become polarised versions of themselves. If each can tone that down, both will be able to relate better from a softer position. For example, if you prefer more nights on the couch than your partner, that’s not inherently good or bad – but you may need to come to some sort of compromise.
Pick your battles, but don’t sweep things under the rug
It’s true that ignoring the small stuff in service of a good relationship is useful, especially if you admit that those small things are your preference, rather than a real need to change for your partner. However, you need to be honest with yourself about whether you’re really just chickening out and avoiding things that need to be said. If you’re ruminating or talking to friends about grievances, or erupting in the therapy room while speaking to your counsellor alone, then it’s time for a conversation.
Remember: having communication struggles doesn’t mean you’re wrong for each other
Couples can get stuck in poor communication habits, and their disappointment in not being able to get through to each other can end up leading them to fear the relationship itself is not working. But you can take comfort in the fact that this may not be true at all.
While most people don’t want to seek professional help as they believe that it’s a bad sign about the relationship in and of itself, nothing could be further from the truth. Even a few sessions of couples counselling could free up the gridlock, and get an otherwise well-connected couple moving closer again.
If there is deeper trouble afoot, then being able to talk more effectively will help you to look at that in safer and more productive ways. Seek out a competent and well qualified couples therapist to assist. It might be the best money you have ever spent.
Relationships Australia NSW offers Couples Communications group programs throughout the year to help you learn the skills to talk through issues with your partner more effectively. Find out more about a course near you here. This article originally appeared on Body + Soul, and has been republished here with permission.