10 Signs Of Communication Issues In A Relationship, From A Psychologist

Clinical Psychologist By Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist
Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist based in Sonoma County, California. She has a doctorate in clinical psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute and a master's in counseling from Sonoma State University.
Tense Couple Eating Breakfast Together

Love relationships are fabulous when things are going smoothly, but when troubles begin, our often-unhealthy default communication techniques can cause even more harm. Unfortunately, these unhealthy habits can lead us into unproductive cycles that bring unnecessary struggle and pain into our romantic relationships.

If communication is not your forte, don't worry. Below are 10 signs you can look for to help you increase your communication awareness and enrich your relationship in the most mindful, uplifting ways.

As you review the signs, strive to keep judgment of yourself or your partner to the side. The more objective you are, the more beneficial your insights will be. In fact, you might want to make notes as you read. If you—or your partner—engage in any of these habits, just make a note using a 1-to-10 scale regarding the severity of the issue. Remember: The goal is to raise your awareness in a positive way, so put on your "relationship researcher hat" and have fun!

1. One person needs to win.

If you find that you focus or your partner focuses on winning—getting your way or being "right"—in arguments, you're on the wrong track. Healthy communication focuses on a collaborative, win-win attitude that makes room for both individuals' perspectives.

Unhelpful: You are so irrational; your opinion is just plain wrong.

Helpful: Your perspective is different from mine. I'd like to know more about your thoughts so that I can understand you better.

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2. Blaming and shaming are at work.

When one or both partners get into the shame-or-blame habit, communication—and the relationship—go downhill. Rather than blaming or shaming a partner, focus on the nature of the problem itself—not attacking the person who made the error.

Unhelpful: Our bills are past due again; if you were smarter, you'd get a better job, and we wouldn't be in this situation.

Helpful: We're a bit behind on our bills. Let's sit down this weekend to work out a budget and payment plan. With a little bit of teamwork, I know we can get our finances under control.

3. Criticism instead of healthy feedback.

Although many people are sensitive to receiving feedback, almost no one appreciates being criticized. The difference between the two can be overt or subtle, so strive to get used to offering positive, healthy feedback rather than negative criticism.

Unhelpful: You're completely inconsiderate and selfish. You're not even thoughtful or responsible enough to let me know when you're running late.

Helpful: I understand that the commute can be unpredictable, yet I feel hurt when you don't let me know you'll be late. I'd truly appreciate a quick text or call when you're running behind.

4. Eye contact and body language are off.

Body language can sometimes speak volumes. It's easy to slip into negative habits during conversations with a partner. From eye-rolling and looking away to folding your arms or walking away during a conversation, negative body language can signal disrespect, irritation, anger, and dismissiveness. These subtle and not-so-subtle behaviors are a passive-aggressive way of controlling conversations in a highly negative way.

Healthy communicators tend to focus on the speaker, make good eye-to-eye contact, and physically lean in during the conversation.

Unhelpful: Why am I snickering and rolling my eyes at you? Because you're so irrational.

Helpful: I feel so connected to you when you hold my hand and really look at me when I'm talking. I feel seen, valued, and understood. 

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5. Multitasking gets in the way.

It's a busy world, but short-changing communication by multitasking generally results in fragmented attention; this leads to misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Multitasking also sends this message to a partner: Whatever else I want or need to do is more important than giving you my undivided attention.

Unhelpful: What's wrong with you? Can't you just let me do other things while you talk?

Helpful: You're my priority, and what you have to say is important. Let me stop what I'm doing to focus on our conversation.

6. Angry, passive-aggressive, or passive tactics are in play.

When anger, passive-aggressiveness, or passive behaviors are the norm, positive communication is almost impossible. Angry comments—verbal assaults—are a sign of trouble. Sarcasm and jokes used as weapons are passive-aggressive strategies that create dynamics. And passive behavior—not speaking your truth or shutting down—gets in the way of healthy communication.

Unhelpful: You're f-d up. And you think you're a good partner? Why don't you just get out of here?

Helpful: I feel really angry when you dismiss opinions. I need a break right now to re-center; I'm taking a walk around the block and will be back in 15 minutes.

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7. Interrupting is the norm.

Interrupting sends the message that another person's message is unimportant or incorrect. If patterns of interrupting are chronic (or getting to be), frustration and resentment arise.

True, active listening involves slowing down to actually hear what another person is saying without interjecting an opinion. In fact, interrupters are generally very poor listeners; rather than listening, their own internal dialogue—which spews out as an interruption—is proof that their attention is self-focused rather than other-focused.

Unhelpful: Stop! What you're saying is absolutely wrong! Let me tell you how it is.

Helpful: I listened fully to what you had to say. Is there anything else? I want to make sure you're finished before I share some thoughts. 

8. Disagreements become fights.

As a firm believer that partners in healthy relationships tend to disagree rather than fight, it's important to notice whether a difference in opinions quickly escalates into a fight. Fighting creates a warlike atmosphere where anger and resentment thrive; fights rarely end with a positive solution. Disagreements, however, often bring couples into a space of feeling mutually seen and heard. These couples know that they can safely disagree on topics without being attacked.

Unhelpful: You always want something. If it's not a new car or your latest hobby, you're after a trip somewhere. Now you want to redo the backyard. Isn't enough ever enough for you?

Helpful: I'm feeling a little stressed about redoing the backyard right now. I've looked at our budget, and it would be a struggle this year. What do you think about holding off until next spring? We can set money aside and really do it right. How does that sound to you?

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9. Technology interferes with face-to-face time.

From cellphones and computers to ever-present television screens, it's easy to get lost in the world of technology. If you find yourself retreating to technology (or any other activity) in favor of face-to-face time with your partner, it's a sign that your communication—the desire to really bond with your partner—is suffering. And intimate communication, like any skill, needs regular practice to stay in good form.

Unhelpful: Giving the best of yourself to your work or personal interests and leaving little energy to communicate with your partner.

Helpful: Setting aside time every day to talk with your partner. Whether by taking a walk together, sitting down to share coffee, or having dinner at a table together (instead of in front of the TV), your communication—and your relationship—will flourish.

10. Resentment and unsolved issues lurk in the background.

If one or both partners stockpile issues instead of addressing them as soon as possible, trouble is brewing. Some people hold on to issues to use as weapons in later arguments; and even when the other partner tries to resolve the issues, the passive-aggressive person often chooses to maintain the stockpile. Others compartmentalize issues in the hope that the problem will go away.

While some minor issues do fade if left unaddressed, many are recycled issues that are never solved. When core hurts, resentments, or irritations are not addressed, it's a sign that positive strategies are needed.

Unhelpful: I'm not going to forgive. I don't care if you apologized and made things right. I want you to pay for what you did for the rest of your life.

Helpful: I'm hurt and feel like we need to get to the roots of what happened. My fear is that you might hurt me in the same way again; it's important to me that you are genuinely accountable for what you did. I think it will do both of us a world of good to gain more clarity and understanding. We can then start fresh.

Taking next steps.

Be patient with yourself and your partner as you venture into the often-unfamiliar world of healthy communication. Keep at it, stay mindful, and do your best one day at a time. Before you know it, your practice will pay off by bringing you and your partner closer than ever.

Here's more on how to fix a lack of communication in relationships.

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