Great relationships start with great communication. If you can communicate well with your partner, you can handle almost any problem together. But how can you deal with a lack of communication in a relationship?
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Finding ways to deal with poor communication in a relationship isn’t easy, but there are things you can do. We’re going to look at why you might have bad communication in a relationship, why it’s such a problem, and how you can learn to communicate better.
The first step in trying to fix poor communication in a relationship is to recognize it. So, how can you tell that your communication with your partner is going to cause you problems? Here are the main signs of a lack of communication in a relationship.
Stonewalling is when someone tries to shut down a conversation. Talking to them becomes like talking to a ‘stone wall’1.
There are lots of different ways to stonewall. They might be completely upfront and simply say “I’m not going to talk about this anymore.” They might walk off during a conversation, or refuse to reply or answer your questions.
A slightly different approach to stonewalling is when someone just says “ok” or “fine” to avoid actually engaging with the conversation. This might sound like they’re agreeing with you or accepting what you’re saying, but they are just saying what they think you want to hear to avoid having a real, meaningful conversation.
Whataboutism is a way of avoiding talking about a particular topic. When you bring up something that is making you unhappy, your partner counters this by bringing up something unrelated where they think you’re in the wrong.
For example, you might start a conversation about how you were hurt that they forgot your birthday. They might reply with “well, what about the way I felt when you wouldn’t come to my parent’s place last Christmas?”
Rather than trying to resolve each of those problems properly, you both end up arguing about whose behavior was worse.
Whataboutism is a way of deflecting criticism2. It makes your conversation into a fight about who is ‘worse’, rather than a collaborative effort to solve your problems.
Whataboutism derails the conversation you’re currently having, but it also makes it harder to talk about things in the future. If your partner keeps bringing up irrelevant accusations when you try to discuss a problem, you’ll probably start to feel anxious about bringing up things that bother you.
Great communication is about opening up to your partner and trying to understand their point of view. Assigning blame and judging each other are clear signs of poor communication in a relationship.
We’ve just talked about whataboutism as one way of focusing on who is ‘in the wrong’ or ‘to blame’, but there are lots of other ways that you might focus on blame rather than trying to find solutions.
This doesn’t always have to mean that you blame each other. Focusing on blaming yourself can be just as much of a problem if it stops you from really listening to your partner or working together to understand each other.
You can’t have good communication without actually talking with each other. Sulking or giving each other the silent treatment is a punishment, rather than effective communication.
There is a difference between taking some time to calm down before having an important conversation and giving someone the silent treatment. When you take time to calm down, you know that you will still have to have the conversation eventually. You’re dealing with your own emotions to improve communication with your partner.
The silent treatment is different. It’s an attempt to shut down the conversation entirely, and punish the other person for trying to have it.
One strong sign of a lack of communication in a relationship is when you talk over each other and interrupt each other.
Communication is about listening as much as talking. When one of you interrupts the other, the person interrupting is focused on their own perspective and the person who was interrupted feels disrespected and unimportant.
When you interrupt someone, you are still communicating something. Specifically, you’re communicating that you think what you have to say is more important than understanding what they want to say.
Talking about your feelings is especially important in a relationship. A lack of communication in a relationship often includes one of you invalidating the other person’s feelings3.
There are lots of ways that you can invalidate each others’ feelings. It might be that they shrug off you telling them how you feel as “not important.” You might tell them that it’s “not that bad” when they say that they feel hurt.
Phrases such as “overreacting”, “hysterical”, or “dramatic” are all ways to tell someone that you don’t take their feelings seriously.
Another major sign of poor communication in a relationship is that you become defensive during conversations. When one partner wants to talk about a problem, good communicators will listen to understand, rather than think about excuses, explanations, or defenses.
Defensiveness is at the heart of many of the other signs of a lack of communication in a relationship. Feeling defensive leads us to put up walls and try to protect ourselves. This is the complete opposite of where we need to be to have great communication. We might lash out to hurt others before we get hurt or avoid conversations that might make us feel bad.
Now you can see whether you have any signs of poor communication in your relationship, but if you want to make long-term improvements in your relationship you also need to understand where your lack of communication comes from.
Here are the main causes of bad communication in a relationship.
Great communication in a relationship requires a lot of trust4. You need to be able to trust that your partner will look after you and has your best interests at heart. You need to feel safe enough to open up about your deepest feelings and be honest about what’s going on for you.
Making yourself vulnerable takes a lot of trust, but it’s essential for open and honest communication.
Sometimes, the problem isn’t that you don’t trust your partner. Instead, your personal insecurities won’t let you open up5. You feel embarrassed, ashamed, or unworthy, so you avoid talking about the things that make those feelings worse.
Personal insecurities aren’t due to your relationship but, if they stop you from communicating effectively, they can do a lot of damage. If your partner doesn’t know about those insecurities (or doesn’t understand them), they can easily assume that you don’t trust them.
Poor communication in a relationship doesn’t always come from deep issues. If you don’t realize just how important great communication can be, you probably won’t put as much effort into it as you need to.
This can be a big problem for long-term relationships. If you’ve had a great relationship for a long time, you often won’t notice if your communication starts to deteriorate.
If you’re both committed to great communication, it only takes a little effort to keep it going. If one or both of you don’t understand why it’s important, your relationship will suffer as a result.
Good communication requires a high degree of self-awareness. You can’t be open and honest about your needs in a relationship if you don’t know what they are and where they come from.
There are lots of reasons that self-awareness might be difficult for you. If you had a difficult childhood or experienced abusive relationships in the past, you might be afraid of the thoughts and feelings you have deep down.
You might also find it difficult if you were told that your emotions didn’t really matter. Parents who say things like “big kids don’t cry,” “sticks and stones will break your bones but words can never hurt you,” or “it’s no use crying over spilled milk” are trying to make their children feel better.
Unfortunately, it tells you that your feelings aren’t important.
Another reason you might have poor communication in a relationship is if one or both of you have an insecure attachment style.
An insecure attachment style means that you don’t really believe that other people will be there for you when you need them6. This makes it hard for you to communicate openly and honestly. After all, why would you open yourself up and make yourself vulnerable if you don’t really believe that the other person will care or give you what you need?
Even if you want to be open and honest, you might find it difficult to actually communicate when you feel intense emotions. Most of us can remember times when we’ve been so angry or sad that we couldn’t find words to describe how we feel. This can happen for lots of different emotions, and it makes it very difficult to communicate.
If this only happens now and then, it probably won’t cause a big problem for the communication in your relationship. The person who is not overwhelmed will usually notice and offer comfort and support.
It can cause bad communication in a relationship if it happens often. Some people are more prone to emotional overwhelm or even emotional flooding. This is when your emotions become so intense that you fall back into fight, flight, or freeze behaviors.
If a partner doesn’t recognize emotional overwhelm or flooding, they can assume that you are simply switching off or don’t care. This makes your communication even worse.
So far, we’ve been trying to understand how poor communication in a relationship works and where it comes from. But, is it really that bad?
Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding yes. If you have no communication in a relationship, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to keep that relationship healthy, let alone actually loving and fulfilling.
Here are some of the biggest effects of a lack of communication in a relationship.
If you can’t open up to each other about what you’re thinking and feeling, you’re not really connecting at a deep emotional level. Being willing to be vulnerable and sharing your experiences lets you feel closer to your partner.
Being in a relationship with poor communication is a bit like wearing a mask all the time. You feel as though your partner can’t see your true self, which can become more and more painful over time.
We resolve problems through communication, compromise, and agreement. If you don’t have good communication in your relationship, you won’t be able to properly resolve your problems. At best, you’ll be putting them to one side and hoping they go away.
Unfortunately, problems in a relationship rarely just go away by themselves. The same problems will usually come up over and over again until you actually resolve them. By avoiding dealing with problems the first time, you’ll probably have to deal with them many times.
Problems in a relationship can often seem bigger each time they come up. For example, telling your partner that you wish they would be tidier isn’t a big deal the first few times you have to do it. After a few hundred, it can feel like a very big problem indeed.
Speaking of big problems, poor communication in a relationship can make all of your conflicts bigger and more dramatic than they need to be. If neither of you is communicating effectively, there is room for all kinds of misunderstandings and hurt feelings, even when that’s the last thing you want.
So, not only are you having the same argument many times, but it’s also much bigger than it needs to be.
Poor communication in a relationship means that one or both of you feel as though you are not being heard. This leads you to feel resentment, which can quickly damage the affection and respect you need for a strong and healthy relationship.
Someone who doesn’t feel heard or understood in their relationship will often find that this affects their self-esteem. The implicit message they’re getting from their partner is that they’re not worth listening to or paying attention to. They feel unimportant and irrelevant.
It’s important to say that this doesn’t mean that their partner actually thinks that they’re not worth listening to. It’s just that it feels like it, which is what damages their self-esteem.
One of the worst effects of a lack of communication in a relationship is that you can be left feeling intensely lonely, even if you spend most or all of your time with your partner.
Feeling lonely while being around people who are supposed to care for you is incredibly hurtful, and this can also damage your self-confidence and your self-esteem7. You might feel as though no one really understands you, or that no one cares about you or your feelings.
It’s clear that a lack of communication is a big problem in a relationship, but it can be fixed. Here are the best ways to improve your communication with your partner, and have a better relationship as a result.
Communication is something that you do with your partner, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t also need to work on yourself. Spending some time learning to understand yourself and your needs can make it much easier to communicate those to the person you love.
Journaling can be a great way to improve your self-awareness8. It’s also especially helpful for improving communication in your relationship because you’re practicing finding the right words to express how you feel.
Communication is as much about listening as it is about speaking, so try to make sure that you’re a great listener. It’s helpful to practice active listening if possible.
Active listening is where you really focus on what the other person is saying and ask questions to make sure that you understand. For example, you might rephrase what they have said.
“So, you’re saying that you don’t like it when I go out for drinks after work because you don’t think my work colleagues are responsible enough and you think it’s unsafe. Is that right?”
You can also ask clarifying questions to really dig into what they think and feel. For example:
“I’d really like to understand more about how you see my colleagues. You say they’re irresponsible. Can you say a little bit more about that? Is there something they’ve done, or a general impression? Is it someone in particular you don’t trust?”
The key to active listening is to be curious about how your partner thinks and feels and to put effort into understanding them.
Being vulnerable is scary and uncomfortable, but learning to be ok with that feeling is essential for great communication9.
It’s important that you work on this in small, manageable portions, and that you keep yourself safe, emotionally as well as physically.
We avoid being vulnerable in order to keep ourselves safe, but it stops us from being able to be fully authentic with the people we love. Practice opening up and being more honest with the people you trust. Taking small steps lets you slowly learn to trust others with your deeper inner self.
If you struggle with being vulnerable, it might be helpful to talk to a therapist or relationship coach to help you understand why. They can also work with you to let you feel safe and secure while you learn how to be vulnerable.
I statements are a powerful tool to help you have great communication in a relationship10. They allow you to talk about your feelings and experiences without blaming your partner or making them feel defensive.
When you have a problem, try to start your sentences with the word “I”. This lets you keep the focus on how you feel, rather than criticizing your partner.
For example, rather than saying “you’re always late. It makes me crazy” you could say “I feel very anxious when you arrive later than I expect. I become really stressed and start worrying that something bad has happened to you. Can we talk about it please?”
If you notice that you and your partner are struggling to communicate effectively, one of the simplest things you can do to get back on track is to give each other reassurance that you both still care about each other and you want things to improve.
Try a simple statement such as “It feels like we’re not really understanding each other at the moment. I hate that, and I want us to get back to feeling close and connected. We can talk about how later, but for now I just want you to know that I do still care and I’m ready to make things better.”
Sometimes, you might find that you keep quiet about problems to avoid having another argument. Although this might feel like you’re trying to improve your relationship, keeping silent is still harmful to your communication.
Try to remember that making yourself heard isn’t selfish. It’s brave. Your relationship will be stronger and both of you will be happier if you make the effort to speak up.
Having difficult conversations is hard enough without worrying about having time constraints or one of you already being in a bad mood. If you have an important conversation you need to have with your partner, make sure you choose a time when you can both focus on it properly.
You might find it helpful to schedule regular “how are we doing?” conversations, especially if you’re trying to fix poor communication in your relationship. This means you don’t have to face the awkwardness of bringing up difficult topics out of nowhere.
Having poor communication in a relationship doesn’t have to be a red flag, but it’s not a good sign. As long as you’re both willing to fix it, you can overcome a lack of communication. If your partner doesn’t want to improve your communication, that can be a red flag.
A relationship with poor communication isn’t healthy or fulfilling. If you realize that you have no communication in your relationship, you may have to decide whether you’re willing to put the effort in to fix it. Poor communication can often be fixed, but it’s ok to decide to walk away.
Most relationships with no communication have a short shelf-life. You’re usually both pretty unhappy and often lonely. Even if your relationship survives, it’s probably not going to make you happy. It’s almost always better to try to improve it or decide to move on.
Having poor communication in a relationship makes it difficult to feel connected and loved, and makes all of your problems worse. Luckily you can fix this if you’re both willing to put in the effort.
Did you enjoy this article? If so, why not share it with someone who could do with better communication in their relationship? And how do you feel about the communication in your relationship? What are your biggest challenges? Let us know in the comments.