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
I am pleased and proud to announce the launch of my new book “Work It Out: A Survival Guide To The Modern Relationship”, out now and available on Amazon. This has been a project that I have been working on for some time now, and it is based on my work with couples in the clinical setting. I hope that my readers will find some beneficial information as I discuss the most common themes that I see when couples are seeking help with their primary relationships. I have compiled some of the insights and strategies that I use to work with couples who are facing problems with issues like communication, partnership, intimacy, and conflict resolution. While all relationships are unique and have different dynamics and needs, I present the most important skills and considerations that I use to help couples when they are trying to work things out. I appreciate so very much the people who have supported and encouraged me throughout this process. The book is available now on Amazon in e-book or paperback form, and I will be working on expanding the availability of the book on other platforms in the coming months. Click on the link in my About the Author page to purchase!
I see a lot of clients for marital/relationship counseling, and one of the most common and frustrating factors that people struggle with when they come to see me is something that I call the Parent/Child Dynamic. This happens when one partner has taken on the role of the Parent, or Director, in the relationship, and the other partner is stuck in the role of the Child, or Adolescent. In these relationships, one person is basically in charge of knowing what needs to be done, and they end up having to ask, direct, or otherwise nag their partner to complete responsibilities that need to be handled. This is an unhealthy relationship pattern for many reasons, but it’s not the fault of one partner of the other.
Honestly, the way I see this dynamic play out most often occurs with a woman in the role of Parent, and a man in the role of Child/Adolescent. However, this is by no means the only way it happens. I’m going to use the example of a woman in the Parent role to illustrate my points here, but be aware that these roles can occur in any relationship with either partner taking on these two roles. In this situation, the woman/Parent is constantly having to tell her partner what chores need to be done, what bills need to be paid, what child-care responsibilities need to be attended to, what planned events or activities need to be prepared for, what needs to be purchased at the store, what pet care duties need to be fulfilled, and on and on and on. Often, I hear from the partner in the Child/Adolescent role “I don’t mind doing whatever she needs, she just needs to ask me”. It sounds like cooperation, but it’s really a form of relinquishing duty. In this example, the woman is in charge of knowing everything that needs to be taken care of, and is in charge of making sure everything gets completed on time and as needed. The man essentially can say he is helping and cooperating, but he takes no part in being pro-active about responsibilities. This dynamic is damaging to relationships because the relationship is not functioning as a partnership, but as a Parent/Child relationship.
For the person in the parent role, it’s exhausting. You didn’t sign up to parent your partner, you wanted someone who would share responsibilities, support you in both tangible and intangible ways, and be, well, your Partner. For the person in the adolescent role, it’s equally frustrating. After all, you didn’t sign up to be treated like a child, nagged about your duties, and punished verbally or emotionally when you didn’t do your chores. It’s infantilizing, and for men, also emasculating. In most cases, you both came into this relationship looking for a partner, and when it starts to feel like you’re in a Parent/Child relationship, it’s going to start to feel less like a partnership and more like a drag. No one wants to be treated like a child, and no one wants to have to nag their partner like a parent. Even worse, sometimes the person in the adolescent role will become resentful about being treated like a child, and will begin “acting out”, by saying they will complete certain tasks and then “forgetting”, or just saying they will do it later and then dragging it out until their partner starts nagging them again, causing more frustration, resentment, and even arguments.
The solution here requires both partners to make some changes. First, you need to have an open discussion with each other if you feel that this is the kind of dynamic that is developing in your relationship. You need to both recognize the role that you have been playing and discuss what you really want your partnership to look like. If you have been in the adolescent role, recognize that it is not your partner’s job to tell you what needs to be done around the house, remind you of the responsibilities that you agreed to, and direct all functions of the household duties. You’re an adult, so act like it. Don’t want to be nagged about taking out the trash or helping with dishes or children? Then start being more pro-active about what needs to be done so your partner doesn’t have to “assign” you chores to do. In some circumstances you can both agree about what needs to be done and assign who is responsible for doing it. However, in my opinion, this is not ideal. Chore lists are for teenagers, not adults. If you don’t want to be treated like a teenager, then act like an adult. It’s fine to have some general roles if you both prefer to do certain tasks. For example, one person may be primarily responsible for mowing the lawn or cooking dinner. These divisions may occur naturally based on what each partner prefers to do or is more capable of doing well. That’s not a problem. But all partnerships require some give and take, and if you notice something needs to be done, just do it. There’s no point in keeping score.
If you have been in the parent role, you may be in for some frustration as you try to make these changes. It will be hard to refrain from engaging in your role as director and assigner of duties if you have been used to doing this, because if the pattern continues, you will see things that need to be done and either end up doing them yourself, or feeling secretly insane inside as you wonder when and if your partner is going to step up and do what needs to be done. This will take some adjusting because while you are used to knowing what needs to be done, and when and how to do it, you will need to allow some space for your previously adolescent partner to step into their new adult role. Give it some time, because one of the most important parts of fixing this problem is that you refrain from asking multiple times for something to be done, or reminding your partner of the things they said they would do. If you get frustrated and start asking multiple times or reminding your partner over and over about something they said they would do, the pattern starts to get further engrained. Sometimes, unpleasant things may happen, like the trash piles up or a bill incurs a late fee. I know, I know, this shouldn’t happen. But you are trying to break unhealthy patterns, and you must give your partner some space to feel the consequences of their own inaction rather than you pointing it out to them all the time. People will not grow up and take responsibility if you always fix everything for them, nor if you criticize how they do everything. If your partner feels like they can never do anything right, they will likely just stop trying.
These changes are not going to happen if you do not talk openly and frankly about what the problem is beforehand. For example, if you have, in the past, tried to passively stay silent while the lawn went un-mowed or the dishes piled up, “testing” your partner to see how long it would take them to notice and step up to the work that needs to be done, then continuing that pattern is not going to help. You have to figure out how to walk the line between direct communication about what you both need and expect from your partnership, and being the director and supervisor of everything. This means that you may need to let go of some of the things you want to control. The towels may not be folded the way you like them and you might run out of toilet paper. Partnership is a growth process. As individuals, we all have to make adjustments when we choose to become a partner to someone else. If you want that partnership to develop in a healthy way, you need to recognize that it is not your partner’s responsibility to conform to what you want them to be. You both need to make adjustments to find the dynamic that works for you both. But don’t allow an unhealthy dynamic to fester and grow in your relationship. You both need to be part of the solution, so recognizing and talking about the Parent/Child dynamic and how it is damaging your partnership is a good place to start changing.
One question I often hear from couple’s who have experienced infidelity is: how do I trust my partner again? It’s a difficult question to answer, because while many people say trust is earned, I tend to say that it is given. Sometimes betrayals happen even after years of devotion, and it is hard to know how to “earn back” something that’s been broken. Sometimes when you’ve been hurt, you may want to resort to tactics that are intended to reassure you, like wanting to have more oversight of them by checking their phone, or their social media accounts. Unfortunately, I think these strategies tend to be ineffective in the long run when it comes to healing a relationship after betrayals occur, and may even exacerbate mistrust and conflict. They may provide some temporary satisfaction to the person who’s been hurt, but it’s important to think about long term results as well when you are trying to move forward as a couple.
Trust can be built back slowly as more of your emotional needs are met over time. However, it ultimately takes a decision that is made by the per son who has been hurt, to give that trust back when they are ready. Unfortunately, trust is always an emotional risk that you take. Frequent or reoccurring infidelity over time is, of course, an indicator that your partner is not deserving of your trust. Yet many people who have been betrayed by their partners still want to repair the relationship, even after multiple occurrences. How do you trust someone who has violated their commitment to you? The surveillance route is inadvisable in my opinion. It creates a dynamic in which the relationship turns into more of an adolescent trying to avoid being grounded by their parent than a couple trying to work through emotionally difficult times together. If this is where you are in your relationship, there are some things that you can do to try and work on moving forward. First, instead of talking about what happened, talk instead about how you feel about what happened. Instead of trying to figure out all the details, which may just cause more hurt to the person who was betrayed, talk instead about how that pain has affected them. Decide what needs to change in the relationship in order for the dynamic to return to a place of trust and mutual respect. These may be things like having more frequent time set aside for you as a couple to reconnect with each other, sharing letters or other writings that express feelings related to the infidelity, increased attention to the division of duties within the household, or sharing spiritual time or other meaningful activities together.
The commitment to these kinds of activities will tell you more about you and your partner’s ability to build trust and mutual respect over time than will checking phone records and social media accounts. Sometimes people really are not deserving of your trust. Knowing when to walk away is important too, but I encourage couples who do want to move forward to be mindful about how they choose to rebuild trust over time. Infidelity involves very real pain and damage in relationships, and the healing process must also involve some real effort and thoughtfulness on the part of both partners in order to move forward with true forgiveness and mutual respect.
Shankar Vedantam’s podcast Hidden Brain recently aired an episode concerning the hook-up culture that is prevalent nowadays both on college campuses and in other social circles occupied by young people. The discussion revolves around the role that casual sex has in the lives of young people and the various social norms that dictate the changing rules of dating, relationships, and sex.
One of the most interesting points that was made was that the rules of hook-up culture disallow emotional investment in the object of sexual conquest. Essentially, the rules dictate that sex itself is not taboo, but becoming emotionally invested in your partner is. Instead of the traditional concept of dating, in which a couple gets to know each other and expresses some level of affection and interest towards each other prior to advancing sexually, sex is now the first barrier to be crossed. Only after perhaps a few casual “hook-ups”, in which commitment is verboten and emotional affection is taboo, would a couple explore the possibility of actually liking each other and wanting to date more seriously.
The fact that emotional investment in an intimate partner is considered a violation, and could lead to a person being labeled as “desperate”, is an indication of the deep fear of vulnerability that pervades many people across age groups in our culture today. Fear of being hurt or rejected causes people to limit access to their own emotions and avoid creating the bonds that actually bring emotional fulfillment in relationships. Equally as disturbing is the fact that showing your emotions to another person can cause social ostracism and comes with the possibility that expressing your feelings could bring about the emotional pain of rejection.
None of this, of course, means that participants in hook-up culture are less likely to desire emotional intimacy and committed partnerships. Yet it does make achieving those things more difficult. Avoiding the work of developing emotional bonds because of the vulnerability involved leaves people missing out on one of the most fulfilling parts of relationship experiences. There is no guarantee that any relationship will work out, and it is impossible to avoid any emotional pain. Yet emotional pain can bring about personal growth and important reflections about what you want and what to avoid. It’s possible that hookup culture is contributing to emotional stagnation, as people avoid intimacy and fear vulnerability. Sexual exploration is an important part emotional growth as well, but when the culture surrounding it makes emotional intimacy punitive, then individuals are losing out on an important part of their own growth: love, in all of it’s messy forms.