How Lack Of Communication Can Sneakily Ruin Relationships & How To Fix It
The first question I ask couples when they come in to meet with me is, "What brings you in today?"
The response is almost always something like, "We have communication issues." If I stopped there, I wouldn't learn much about what's going on for them because "communication issues" is defined differently for everyone. Even more challenging is that fact that within a relationship, couples will mean different things for what they describe as "communication issues."
Why a relationship cannot work without communication.
We are constantly communicating with each other, whether we believe we are or not. Literal words aside, we unconsciously communicate through nonverbals like facial expressions and body language, we communicate through the tone of our voice, and we communicate through our behavior.
Couples that don't learn to consciously communicate will face issues when it comes to intimacy, conflict, and relational growth. Understanding your partner's inner world and having them understand yours is pivotal to true connection. If you struggle to communicate in a way that evolves your relationship, then over time you will find that you grow apart.
Lack of communication in relationships can't be ignored, especially in situations where you actively feel like you can't communicate with your partner.
Effects of lack of communication on a relationship:
- Escalated conflict
- A negative perspective of your partner
- Turning away from each other's attempts to connect
- Feeling unseen or unknown
- Lack of intimacy
- Difficulty setting and reaching goals
Signs of bad communication in a relationship:
- Criticizing or belittling each other
- Getting defensive
- Stonewalling (i.e., giving the cold shoulder)
- Passive aggression
- Assuming you know what your partner is thinking
- Cyclical arguments that are never resolved
- Lack of compromise
- Fewer attempts to connect with each other
- Arguing about "the facts" behind a conflict instead of focusing on what the experience was like for each person
How to fix communication problems in relationships:
Look at your and your partner's attachment styles.
In psychology, attachment theory holds that each person's "style" of doing relationships is shaped by the type of care they received from their earliest caregivers. If one or both people have an insecure attachment style in their relationship—that is, they tend to form insecure attachments with others instead of steady and secure ones—then communication will be driven by anxiety rather than authenticity.
Insecure attachment is when a person responds to their own needs for connection by either desperately avoiding them (avoidant attachment) or desperately pursuing them (anxious attachment). In either case, it is important to learn about what will make it feel safe enough to engage in communication in a real way rather than by these measures of self-protection.
If you have a partner with an avoidant style, they'll typically have a need for space. You can respond to this by asking to communicate in small chunks, giving them time to think, or offering some of the conversation via text or email.
If you have a partner with an anxious style, it's important to communicate to them in a way that is predictable and actively reassuring of your feelings for them.
Explore any meta-emotion mismatch.
A meta-emotion mismatch means the two people have different feelings about feelings. One partner believes that feelings are helpful to discuss and feel, while the other partner believes they are unhelpful.
When couples have a meta-emotion mismatch, it can be really challenging to communicate. To get your partner to communicate with you, it's important to explore what you both think about emotions. How were they processed when you were a child? Did you believe it was helpful?
Then, you'll want to explore together how to communicate with each other more effectively keeping these facts in line. This might mean learning to allow your partner to experience their feelings before offering solutions or being more willing to look at solutions and compromise and skip over the feelings in some conversations.
Address past hurts that haven't been resolved.
Another reason you might be struggling to communicate is because something painful happened in your relationship that hasn't been fully resolved. Perhaps there was a betrayal or someone said something that's never properly been amended. To move forward and to begin communicating better, you'll need to process these hurts, rebuild trust, and be willing to forgive each other.
If your partner isn't communicating with you, it's helpful to identify the "why"—is it something left over from childhood? Are they feeling hurt by you? Do they just have a different idea of what it means to communicate?
Try to bring these questions up with them and explore what you both need when it comes to open and honest communication. You'll likely find that you have different answers.
Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, is a Philadelphia-based marriage and family therapist, certified Gottman therapist, and author of I Want This To Work. She is the director and therapist at A Better Life Therapy and cofounder of Ours. She received her bachelor's in adult organizational development and education from Temple University and her master's in couples and and family therapy from Thomas Jefferson University. She primarily works with couples experiencing high levels of conflict and individuals struggling with relational issues.