Relationship Series: Couples’ Communication
I’m going to be starting a new series on relationships, and this will be the first post and cover Couples Communication. I previously did a series on Cognitive Distortions that resonated with many of my readers, so this will be another series in which I will go in-depth to cover a lot of information in one area over a series of posts. Here I will cover the 3 main communication styles and how they impact your relationship, and cover how to use assertive communication for better conflict resolution.
I have worked with countless couples in therapy, and the number 1 thing that couples come in seeking help for is communication. This makes sense, because communication is really the cornerstone of any relationship. In fact, even when I am seeing people for individual therapy, we also often end up going over communication styles and assess what can be improved in the area of communication because it is SO important in every area of your life.
For couples, communication problems are often at the heart of so many problems that couples face. In a relationship, the health and strength of the relationship isn’t measured by how much conflict you have with each other. All couples have some conflict, so being conflict-free isn’t the goal. The problems arise when it comes to how you resolve that conflict. When you learn to communicate well, then you can resolve conflicts in a healthy and productive way that nurtures and supports your relationship rather than in a way that tears down your bonds and causes pain and distress.
What are the 3 communication styles?
Essentially, there are 3 forms of communication, and as a couple you may both use different forms of communication during conflict, so depending on what your tendencies are as a couple both of you may need to do some work to change how you communicate with each other. The first step towards building healthier communication as a couple is learning what kind of communication style you are using and figure out whether it is healthy or if there needs to be some changes.
Communication can be broken down into these 3 styles:
Passive communication is when you are attempting to let someone know how you feel without really coming out and saying it. Passive behavior can mean being avoidant and choosing NOT to discuss problems when they arise, usually because you don’t like conflict or you want to avoid an argument. Passive communication can be giving someone the silent treatment, or it could be using non-verbal cues like rolling your eyes, crossing your arms, giving someone a mean look, or walking around the house huffing and puffing but then saying “Nothing” when your partner asks you what’s wrong.
Aggressive behavior is pretty clear when you see it: yelling, screaming, slamming doors, violence, insults, inappropriate sarcasm meant to cut the other person down, condescending comments. This way of communicating is harmful and damaging to relationships, and damages intimacy and the mental health of both people in the partnership.
Assertive communication is open, honest, and direct when it comes to expressing your thoughts and feelings. This kind of communication feels good because you are expressing yourself and making your points, without attacking your partner or shutting down their thoughts and feelings. Assertive communication is about standing up for your thoughts, feelings, and rights, without trampling on your partner’s thoughts, feelings, or rights.
What does it mean to be Passive-Aggressive?
Some people use the term passive-aggressive to describe themselves or others, but I dislike that term, because what it really amounts to is using passive behavior or communication to convey an aggressive sentiment or emotion. When people say someone is being passive-aggressive, they usually just mean the person did something passive, but they meant it in an aggressive way. Ultimately it’s passive behavior, and it’s still unhealthy for relationships.
What Does Unhealthy Communication Look Like?
Unhealthy communication is either passive or aggressive. These two communication styles are often part of a cycle that builds up over time and conflicts start to sap the energy and joy out of your relationship. You don’t want conflict so you avoid sensitive issues. Then resentment builds up until one or both partners explode.
Passive behavior is unhealthy in relationships because it does not resolve problems, but instead leads to resentment building up as emotions are stuffed down and problems are ignored. This often results in the “volcano effect”, where resentment and hurt feelings builds up over time, but is never addressed, until something triggers an explosion, and then aggressive behavior breaks through and there’s an unhealthy, aggressive argument.
Aggressive communication also doesn’t resolve conflict, because when you are aggressive towards your partner, the other person will do one of two things: they will feel intimidated and shut down, because they are trying to stop or avoid the aggressive behavior, or they will feel threatened and get defensive, also becoming aggressive and escalating the situation further. Now you’re both yelling at each other and nothing is getting resolved. Many couples who argue in this way find themselves highly stressed, often hurt, and insecure about the status of the relationship because it feels so volatile.
Aggressive behavior hurts your partner and reflects poorly on you if you are the one engaging in this communication style. It also has the effect of damaging the intimacy in your relationship and breaking down your emotional connection to each other. It’s harder to trust your partner when they are aggressive, and conflict doesn’t get resolved because the focus ends up on stopping the aggressive behavior rather than resolving the original problem. Aggression also contributes to passive avoidance, because when one person is trying to avoid the aggressive attacks, they do not bring up issues that they have because they are walking on eggshells all the time.
What Is Healthy Communication for Couples?
Healthy communication for couples happens when both people learn and practice assertive communication with each other. This means addressing problems when they come up and understanding how situations impact each other as a couple. When you both practice assertive communication, then when conflict arises you have a discussion, not an argument. Assertive communication doesn’t come easily to everyone, but it is a skill that can be learned and practiced.
Assertive communication involves first understanding your own feelings and being able to communicate your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in a way that is open, direct, and honest. This happens when you take the time to reflect on how something your partner did or said made you feel, and then focusing on communicating your feelings, rather than just criticizing your partner’s behavior.
Often the problem is not, for example, that your partner intended to do or say something to upset you, but the way something happened may leave you feeling disrespected, hurt, or confused. It is important to communicate how their behavior or words made you feel, by saying something such as “When you said ……, I felt…..” rather than just ignoring the hurtful comment or responding with aggression such as “Don’t you dare you speak to me like that!”
How Do I Use Assertive Communication with my Partner?
There are many opportunities to practice assertive communication. You likely already do use assertive communication at times, but you may also alternate between passive or aggressive communication depending on the dynamics in your relationship. Focusing on practicing assertive conflict resolution will benefit all your interactions over time, and you will become more confident in how you express yourself.
Practicing assertive communication also enables you to keep the focus on the conflict, rather than your behavior. Too often, partners can blame each other for their behaviors while arguing, which enables the original problem to slip out of focus while the argument turns into who is in the wrong for their response to the conflict.
To practice assertive communication, start to use some of the following statements when you want to discuss a conflict or situation that needs to be resolved or expressed:
- I feel hurt when you say….
- It is not fair that……
- I feel resentful when….
- My biggest fear is…
- I felt let down when you….
- I didn’t deserve…
- I’m most angry when…..
- I want you to understand that….
- I accept that you…
- I hope that you understand…
- I need to ask you to….
- I need to tell you that….
- I feel scared when….
- I feel supported when you…
These are all the beginnings of assertive statements that center your thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Using these kinds of statements will help you to communicate more assertively, but it will not stop your partner from reacting either passively or aggressively. Both people in a relationship need to agree to work on using assertive communication for you to transition from having arguments to having discussions.
However, you don’t have to wait for your partner to get on board to start practicing your own assertiveness. You still have a responsibility to be healthy even if your partner doesn’t want to change. However, if your partner is not willing to engage in finding solutions to how you both communicate, then it might be time to evaluate whether you both want the same things out of your relationship.
Ultimately, practicing your communication with your partner will help you to become more assertive and confident in other areas of your life. Your partner is who you want to feel the safest with though, when it comes to expressing your feelings, so make sure that you are making healthy communication with your partner a priority.
For more information about relationships and building a strong partnership, check out my author page for a link to my book for couples “Work It Out: A Survival Guide to the Modern Relationship” and if you want more resources for building a healthy relationship, subscribe here and I’ll send you the free Couples Communication Toolkit that I designed to get you on the right track with your relationship communication.
For more posts in this series, please see:
Relationship Series: Shared Values
Relationship Series: Emotional Intimacy
Relationship Series: Personal Confidence and Your Partnership
How to Stop Past Pain from Damaging Your Relationship
Relationship Series: When Opposites Attract- How to Manage Personality Differences
Relationship Series: Sexual Compatibility and Your Partnership