3 Negative Communication Styles Couples Use That Can Cause Unhappiness and What You Can Do to Communicate Better with Your Partner - Part 1

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“I want to have better communication between us” is a desire for closeness that couples often express in therapy. Yet, when asked what better communication looks like, couples feel frustrated as the answer they receive sounds foreign to what they think their partner wants. Communication is subjective because what you view as “communicating” can be very different from what your partner perceives as you both look at it through different lenses. Because the uniqueness of your lens is created by your personal beliefs, values, social influences, and life experiences, no one’s view of communication is the same as yours. Not addressing your differences will only cause you and your partner pain because your significant other can’t know what is in your mind if you don’t share it, yet hoping that somehow if “my partner loves me, he/she should know what I want.” It is a set-up for failure.

Let’s look at my own case. Before my husband and I had an actual discussion of what communication looked like to each of us, I often felt hurt and alone when I did not get the desired version of communication I wanted, leaving him perplexed by my withdrawal and what he had done wrong to make me become so distant. Yup! Cold-shoulder treatment used to be my go-to strategy when I freaked out as I couldn’t feel close enough to him. You may think because I am a counselor, I should have known how to handle it better, but that wasn’t the case for me at first. I thought my withdrawal would change him and somehow bring us closer, but it didn’t. It just put me in a very lonely place. My sense of insecurity caused me fear so instead of reaching out to connect, I communicated my needs in negative ways. Through our own couples counseling and consistent practice of effective communication skills, my husband and I now feel more connected than we ever had been before. So today I want to share my mistakes with you so you can avoid them in your relationship.  For those who are struggling due to ineffective communication with your loved one, don’t lose hope. There is a way to ask for what you need that not only brings about positive feedback from your partner, but also helps you both feel more connected.

So, let’s start by discussing the three communication styles that you should move away from:

1.  Passive Communication:

Common Signs:

  • Prioritizing your partner’s needs at your own expense

  • Suppressing/Ignoring your own needs or wants

  • Avoid expressing your honest feelings, values, or concerns

  • Putting up with your partner’s demands

  • Giving in during a disagreement due to fear of conflict

  • Lack of confidence

We all want peace in our relationship. We favor good times over “bad” times (aka times when we encounter disagreements as our beliefs collide with what our partner sees). Disagreement can offer opportunities for growth as we learn more about ourselves and our partner through accepting individual differences. However, if trying to keep the peace due to fear of conflict is your top mission, chances are that you will not stand up for yourself when needed. When one partner prioritizes the other’s needs, wants, and feelings at her own expense, she is unconsciously sending the message that “my needs don’t matter.” Giving in is another passive way of communicating that you are not confident in yourself and your ability to ask for what you need. This action can make you feel good at first as it may help you gain your partner’s approval and bring you the peace you want for a short period of time. However, in the long run this pattern of interaction can cost you intimacy as your partner feels guilty and you try to repress anger and resentment.

Another form of passive communication is hiding or lying about what you really think or feel because you’re afraid that your expression would somehow damage the relationship or make your partner think less of you. The truth is that a strong relationship requires input from both partners to keep it well-balanced and developed. A lack of feedback creates a stagnant environment that yields unclear future directions. You need to know what you have done well and what you could do better to improve your relationship, and so does your partner!

2.  Aggressive Communication:

Common signs:

  • Attending to one’s needs at the expense of one’s partner (e.g. neglect the other’s feelings/needs)

  • Complaints (i.e. nagging or whining)

  • Confrontation (i.e. using hostile questions, using rude gestures to prove one’s point)

  • Use of criticism & humiliation (i.e. cursing, name calling, mimicking, or mocking the other)

  • Overpowering tone of voice (talking loud, yelling, screaming, or shouting)

  • Potential abuse (i.e. physical, verbal, or emotional)

  • Frequently interrupting your partner or refusing to listen to what the other has to say

  • Attempting to control a situation through anger

  • Unwillingness to compromise

On the opposite side of the communication spectrum lays the aggressive style. This form of interaction can easily be recognized by one partner, or both, trying to talk over the other. Use of criticism, humiliation, and domination are parts of this negative technique. Anger is the most reported emotion in this dynamic. What couples don’t know is that anger is only a secondary emotion, a surface one that is more easily identified due to its intensity. However, underneath it is often a cry for unmet emotional needs such as one’s longing for acceptance, validation, or worthiness. Aggression may make you appear less vulnerable (read more about vulnerability here and here) in front of your partner and gain more control of a situation in the moment, but its double-edge will destroy your happiness over time.  

When you aggressively express your feelings or needs at the expense of your partner, your message is received as “I matter more” or “your needs are not as important as mine,” regardless of your awareness of the action. When you use hostility to mask your unmet emotional needs, the end results are often ones that cause resistance, counter-aggression, blame, defiance, or lies from your significant other. For instance, if you want to spend more time with your husband but he tends to overwork, expressing that need through yelling or shouting will not get you your desired outcome. It only causes you disconnection from your loved one, which is the opposite of what you want. It also damages both partners’ self-esteem due to humiliation and loss of self-control, a price that costs more than what it’s worth.

3.       Passive Aggressive:

Common signs:

  • Use of sarcasm (e.g.: Oh, it’s funny you feel that way. I wonder how that happened)

  • Cold-shoulder treatment (i.e. ignoring your partner or remaining silent while your partner tries to talk to you)

  • Subtle insults (e.g. I don’t understand how anyone could think that)

  • Blunt, short responses (e.g. Fine, whatever! or I don’t care, do what you want)

  • Procrastination (i.e. purposely taking a long time to do what you are supposed to do)

  • Intentional failure to complete requested tasks (i.e. to show your resistance)

  • Keeping score to “get back” at the other (i.e. you didn’t do this for me, so I won’t do this for you)

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A subtle form of aggression is passive aggressive behaviors. It is an indirect way of showing resistance while avoiding confrontation. We all try this style of communication at some point in our relationship and while it is easier for the other to see our intention, it is more difficult for us to recognize what we are doing as we are caught up in our own emotions. Although passive-aggressive may appear as less hostile compared to aggressive communication, it can damage your ability to stand up for yourself in a healthy way. Passive-aggressive interactions can come off as asking your partner accusation-like questions such as “What were you thinking? Are you out of your mind?” to something that appears subtler like staring at the TV when your partner is talking to you or ignore his texts/calls/presence entirely as a way of communicating “I am mad/upset at you.”

Just like the other forms of communication above, passive-aggressive can provide you short-term relief because it may help you avoid conflicts, gain your partner’s attention, or manipulate him/her to do what you want. However, over time it will create blame, resistance, and disconnection in your relationship. Its underlying message is “I think you’re crossing the line, but I hate conflicts and I don’t know if it’s worth to stand up for myself, so I am just dropping hints for you that I’m upset.” Passive-aggressive reinforces zero accountability as you’re in denial that “there is something troublesome in my relationship and I need to communicate it clearly and honestly with my partner.” Zero accountability often keeps couples in a vicious cycle of blame and disconnection. Instead of working together, you turn against each other. Instead of reaching out to connect, you withdraw. It’s a very lonely place to be.

This is it for this week. It has been a long post, but I hope that you learned something from my post to better your relationship. Next week, I’ll share what you can do to communicate better with your significant other. I’ll share with you how you can express your needs in a way that brings you and your partner closer and grow your relationship. So stay tuned!


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