relationship communication problems

How to address communication problems in your relationship

When people call to seek couples counseling, they often say that communication problems are their number one concern. Communication problems can mean a variety of different things and we’ll explore a few common types here.

Typically, a communication breakdown is one of two things. You and your partner have stopped talking about important things all together. Or you and your partner can’t talk about anything without it turning into a major fight.

The honeymoon period

For most couples, there will be a period at the beginning of the relationship when things are relatively easy. There’s not much conflict, or if there is, you resolve it simply. You enjoy being together. You’re learning about each other and planning for what your future life will look like together. This can last for the first year or few years of a new relationship.

But then things start to change. One specific fight or a series of gradual disagreements can begin to pull you farther apart, until it feels like you’re living with a stranger.

No more communicating

When things get bad some couples lack the skills required to talk about tough topics and resolved them. Instead, they pull apart. You get busy with work, you stop having date nights and sex can dwindle into nothing.

While we’re taught math and science in school, we aren’t always taught emotional intelligence or communication skills. It can be scary to talk about really vulnerable topics with your closest confidant, especially if it’s about them.

So we shut down and pull away, but that makes the problem worse.

Too much friction

On the other end of the spectrum, there are those couples that are not able to talk about anything without it turning into a fight. Picture talking about laundry and fast forward to a fight that can last sometimes for several days with many hurt feelings along the way.

This type of communication can be very corrosive and over time it can lead to resentment, anger and distance.

Attachment

Attachment research is an area of psychology that explores the way we attach to our significant others. Two famous researchers, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth originally developed attachment theory to categorize infant and parent relationships. That research has since been expanded to include adult attachment relationships. It is no surprise that the way we learned to attach to people early in life can stay with us into adulthood.

In a nutshell, attachment theory states that there are healthy and secure ways that we can learn to attach to our partners. On the flip side, there are also less healthy or insecure ways that we can attach to one another. The good news is that we can relearn attachment and earn our way towards being secure.

For more information about attachment, check out the relationship book Attached.

Healthy communication

There are qualities that are evident in healthy, secure adult attachment. According to Hazan and Shaver (1987), securely attached couples will:

  •    Feel safe when the other is nearby and responsive
  •    Engage in close, intimate, bodily contact
  •    Feel insecure when the other is inaccessible
  •    Share discoveries with one another

Many of these behaviors are similar to the way securely attached infants and caregivers interact. They’re motivated by a deep love and connection that comes across in a playful and caring way.

Communication problems and attachment

When a couple is not feeling safe and connected to one another, communication can break down in some of the ways we explored above. Toxic arguments, pulling away and the silent treatment are all ways of communicating with your partner in an insecurely attached way.

In fact, communication problems are often a warning sign that something is not right with your attachment, a canary in the coal mine.

Improve communication in your relationship

Luckily, there is hope. With all the research being done in attachment theory there are concrete steps you can take to improve your relationship. Below are three simple concepts to think about when trying to work on your communication with your partner.

Be authentic and honest

It’s hard to improve communication if you’re not clear about what your own needs may be or what you may want from your partner. Take some time to reflect on what you need and want. Journal, meditate, hike or talk with a friend to narrow in on what is important to you. Then you will have a jumping off point for a more intimate and vulnerable conversation with your partner.

Don’t blame your partner

Instead of thinking about all the ways in which your partner is letting you down, take a look at your side of the street. What are you doing to contribute to the cycle? Are there better ways you can ask for what you need or want? As soon as you start to blame or attack, you’re already in fight or flight mode and you will not be able to have open communication.

Make clear and specific requests

Instead of making vague comments like, I feel lonely, ask for something specific. If you feel lonely ask for more communication from your partner during the day. You can request a text check-in a lunch or a quick phone call to say hi. Or, if you’re wanting different or more frequent sex, be direct and ask for what you want.  It can be scary to put your needs out there. However, if you don’t ask, you may never receive.

Action item

How do you and your partner communicate? Are you able to talk about differences and share in each other’s joy? Is your partner the person you want to turn to when you’re distressed or happy? Take a few moments to think about these questions and make some notes for your next check-in with your partner.

Tom Bruett

Tom Bruett

Tom Bruett, LMFT is a licensed psychotherapist with an office in San Francisco, CA. Tom feels passionately about helping people have better relationships. The purpose of this blog is not to provide advice or to take the place of working with a mental health professional. For more information please visit the homepage.