We all know that open and honest communication is one of cornerstones of a healthy relationship. We also know that it’s one of the toughest parts of being part of a couple. In my past 20 years as a therapist, I’ve seen a wide variety of communication mistakes that couples make. In fact, communication problems are the number one reason couples come to see me.
Couples with communication problems tend to either have a high level of conflict in their relationship, or they have a real problem with avoidance. Raised voices, put downs, and disagreements are hallmarks of high-conflict communication between couples. Since high-conflict communication focuses on who's right rather than how a resolution can be made, it's both unproductive and hurtful for everyone involved.
Avoidance in communication can be just as damaging to a relationship, though. Over time, if a couple makes a habit of avoiding difficult subjects, this avoidance will permeate all aspects of their communication. It's a major reason so many couples drift apart emotionally and physically.
If you're anything like me, then you probably base how you communicate with your partner on what you've learned from your parents, friends, and culture. Chances are, your partner does, too. It's easy to assume our partner grew up with the same communication style that we did, but everyone's different. Some families are loud, some families never talk about their feelings, and some families make fun of each other. Because of this, it's important to try to understand the ways you and your partner's communication patterns differ.
Regardless of how you communicate with your partner, though, there are some methods of communicating that are bound to cause problems. So whether you’re in a new relationship or have been married for years, it’s important that you and your partner try not to fall into these 11 communication mistakes.
1. Making Assumptions
Assumptions are perhaps the most common communication problem couples face, because it's easy to make assumptions about someone you know well. But even if you've been with your partner for years, you can still wrongly assume you understand their perspective.
Because of this, it’s essential to be curious, and to ask clarifying questions. Even though it seems contrived, it can really help to ask: “I think you’re saying [X], but I'm not sure. Is that what you meant?”
2. Talking To A Partner When They Need To Focus On A Task
Communication requires the full attention of both people. Don’t talk to your partner when they're trying to finish a project or study for an exam and expect to be heard. I know we’re all busy, and it’s probably rare that your partner is sitting around doing nothing. But if you have something super important to talk about, either wait for your partner to finish working, or kindly explain to them that you need a few minutes of their time.
3. Accusing A Partner of "Always" or "Never" Doing Something
Overgeneralizing happens when you’re talking about a specific incident, but make a broad statement using words like “always” and “never”. First, it’s usually inaccurate to accuse your partner of doing (or not doing) something absolutely all the time. Second, it puts your partner in the position of wanting to defend themselves rather than listen to you. And third, you’ll have more success in resolving the current problem if you stick to the incident at hand.
4. Being Overly Critical
Consider whether you’re voicing this criticism in an environment of growth or are you saying it in anger. Criticism can, of course, be constructive with the right delivery. It can also be hurtful and deteriorate trust, so carefully consider how to best express it to your partner. It’s important to be both honest and kind to your partner. Remember to communicate the things you appreciate and love to your partner, too.
I know it can be easy to interrupt someone when you feel like you're not being heard, but interrupting your partner is disrespectful and rude. It says to your partner, "What I have to say is more important than what you’re saying."
Your partner is not your child, so try not to talk to them in a way that's condescending. Obviously, you should be honest with them. But, ultimately, they're a grown-up. So don't talk down to them — even if you think they're being ridiculous.
7. Forgetting To Be Sensitive
How you say something often has a bigger impact than what you're actually saying. Yelling, sarcasm, condescension, or a harsh tone will either result in your partner shutting down emotionally and withdrawing, or it will result in defensiveness and anger. Neither is the outcome you’re looking for.
So, if you’re angry, take time to calm down before engaging in a discussion with your partner.
8. Being Passive Aggressive
Healthy communication is both honest and direct. When this doesn’t feel possible, people resort to indirect, passive-aggressive ways of letting you know they’re displeased. Obviously, no one responds well to passive aggressiveness. Be clear about what you want, and don't punish your partner when they try to do the same thing.
9. Talking Over Each Other
I know it can be easy to talk over your partner if you feel like they're not listening to you. But if you’re doing all the talking, that means you’re not listening. Listening is half of the communication equation. Slow down, take a breath, and give your partner a chance to talk.
10. Giving Unsolicited Advice
Give your partner a chance to ask for your advice before you start telling them what to do. Your partner wants to be heard and respected, and if you frequently give them unsolicited advice, they may start to feel like you don't trust them to make their own decisions. Ask questions, and don't be afraid to give your opinion. Just try to remember that, ultimately, your partner is capable of making their own decisions.
11. Avoiding Difficult Subjects
Problems usually don’t get better when left unchecked. If anything, they tend to get worse. Having difficult conversations is one of the unpleasant but necessary aspects of being in a relationship. Conflict is normal and it isn’t necessarily a sign of a troubled relationship. Sensitive subjects can be dealt with respectfully and lovingly. Keep in mind that sometimes the anticipation of difficult conversations is worse than the actual discussion.
Of course, if you’re having trouble talking about difficult subjects, you also shouldn't be afraid to talk to your partner about getting some professional help.
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