Communication issues are one of the top complaints in couples’ relationships because there are common mistakes that couples make when trying to communicate with each other. At least, that’s the one prominent concern all our couples seek therapy for with us here at Embracing You Therapy in Woodland Hills. In general, learning to communicate is one of the trickiest things we take on in our interpersonal relationships. Between societal conditioning about “what is appropriate,” the messages we get that “our closest loved ones will just know us without having to try,” and personal histories of how communication was modeled and received, it can be difficult to navigate.
This can feel especially painful in our romantic relationships. Often, this is the person we spend the most time with and with whom we have the most to discuss. Planning trips; balancing holidays and events with one another’s families; weekly scheduling that involves each person’s job and any extracurriculars (including children’s activities, if you have children); household chores; errands. And also, understandably, wanting to feel connected and safe in your relationship with one another. We can get busy and tired, or feel like we’ve said it all before, or worry that expressing ourselves will cause bigger problems, and soon enough, we aren’t saying anything.
Why is communication important in a relationship?
Jeanette Winterson says, “Language is a finding place, not a hiding place.” This sums up the value of good communication in any relationship. Communication is a place where we can connect and find one another. We can feel seen and understood through open and vulnerable communication. Communication allows us to share where we are coming from, how we see the world, and what we care about most. It is where the people who love us learn to care for us, look out for us, support us, and protect us; it is where we learn the same of those we love.
What are the issues that arise from poor communication?
- When communication is poor, it is very easy to build up resentment towards each other for not having your needs met or for unhealthy communication that creates a feeling of not being safe in your relationship. Holding your tongue to try to keep the peace is incredibly stressful. Speaking up about how you feel and not having those feelings honored is incredibly painful. There are so many ways for poor communication to manifest and for it to cause damage.
- There is a lack of conflict resolution, so you get stuck. You end up in a cycle of nothing ever getting solved that inevitably leads to you giving up on expressing how you feel. Discussions and decisions are all tainted by the underlying frustration of the things you’re not talking about.
5 Common Mistakes Couples Make When Trying to Communicate
1) “There is one person who is right and one who is wrong”:
There are always occasions in which one person has clearly crossed a line or made a mistake, but the majority of our life situations aren’t so much about right vs. wrong as they are about holding differing perspectives. Where couples go wrong in their communication is in thinking that most issues have to have a “winner,” as opposed to trying to determine the point of view of the other person so that you can work as a team.
The truth is that if you are in a partnered relationship, you have elected to commit to a life with that person. If you live together, you have elected to share your space and the majority of your time with that person. It should be assumed that you and that person each hold one another in high regard and want one another to be happy and to feel content in the relationship. All communication should come from that place. That doesn’t make it easy; we all have stressful days or times when we are not at our best due to pressures at work, illness, or an overloaded schedule. We cannot always be flawless in our approach to the relationship because sometimes we are too preoccupied with our own basic needs. And yes, you should always seek to provide yourself with care first. But that doesn’t mean that you get to win the issue because you had a tough day at work because that’s not how conversations are supposed to go.
Conversations are meant to exist in order to find mutual agreement and understanding. If you and your partner disagree about an approach to a situation, how to prioritize your plans, or any other issue which will impact both of you, it is important to remember that it is the two of you vs. the problem, not one another.
2) Thinking that everything should all be resolved in one conversation:
Communication takes time and patience. Often the couple in therapy complains how “we have talked about this already,” as if there is a set rule on the amount of time you can spend on a particular conversation or topic. In actuality, as we evolve, so do our living situations, points of view, needs, and goals. What worked for you last year might not work for you this year, and that’s okay! However, with these changes comes a need to revisit what was previously established. If one partner thinks that every resolution is cemented for all time, there is going to be an issue as time passes.
If you and your partner try to set a timer on a conversation, you will add unneeded pressure to the situation. Not many people are able to communicate clearly and respectfully under pressure; why set yourselves up to hurt one another? It can also feel as though your feelings aren’t important if you’re only allowed to talk about them for a specified length of time. The truth is that resolving an issue takes as long as it takes. It is more important to get it right than to get it over with. If the relationship is worth the effort, so is the conversation.
3) Not being allowed to bring up the past:
Bringing up the past is often seen as an attack; there can be a lot of pressure behind the concept of “leaving in the past.” This negative context can sometimes be true if that’s how past experiences are typically used, meaning as a form of ammunition. However, not being allowed to bring up the past is not and should not be a rigid rule. There are times we need to revisit the past to process it, and there are times when an issue is simply ongoing.
There are, of course, ways to bring up the past that make it clear to your partner that you are not trying to throw something in their face. The first is to do it when it is on-topic with whatever the conversation at hand happens to be. If you are in a debate about your in-laws, the only reason to bring up your partner’s messiness around the house is to pile on. This is not a productive comment. It is also not a way to resolve the messiness if that truly bothers you. If you are in a debate about your in-laws and there is a pattern of behavior, then past instances can be brought up with respect.
The second way to bring something up is in a neutral time – this means a time when you are not angry but also a time when you’re not experiencing real happiness together as a couple. This doesn’t mean that strong concerns should wait on your partner’s mood; that is not fair to anyone. It means that if your partner had a terrible day, and your issue can wait till tomorrow, you might get a more reasonable response if you hold off. Similarly, if you and your partner are having a great time laughing together or enjoying a romantic date night, that might not want to be the energy you interrupt. Too often, we think, “Oh great! They’re in a good mood. This is the perfect time to bring up this thing that’s been bothering me because they’ll make it better.” If it’s something small that can wait, maybe it should wait. Think to yourself, “If I were feeling this way and they brought this issue up now, would I feel that my current emotional state was being respected? Would I feel that this issue needed to be addressed at this moment?” If the answer is no, that’s probably your answer.
You might say, “I know we discussed topic x a few weeks ago and are both feeling a lot better about it. I feel good about our conversation. I’ve thought about it a little more, and I’d like to talk about something that came up for me so that we are both on the same page.” Frame your request as a bid for connection and cooperation. You might want to ask your partner if there is a time you can schedule to chat about it a little more. Perhaps you can propose to chat over a dinner of your favorite takeaway or go on a walk together.
4) “They should know by now how I feel and what I want!”:
Another common mistake is assuming that your partner “should know by now” what you want, need, and feel. While you may have communicated this clearly, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to apply it to every situation perfectly. It also doesn’t mean that your partner should have to guess what you would choose or how you would respond in any given circumstance.
As we discussed before, we are constantly changing and evolving. We meet new people, read new books, hear new lectures, and go to new places. All of these experiences shape our worldview. Why, then, should we expect another person to figure us out and be done with it?
The trick to overcoming this communication obstacle is to check in with your partner. Involve them in your thought process as you feel opinions shifting or as you realize your priorities are changing. When your partner does something you like, say it! When something less thrilling happens, express your needs or boundaries.
With the way your schedules are set up or with your communication styles, you may want to reserve time to check in with one another about how you’re feeling. What is the most important task this month or this week? What is something you’re enjoying? What is something you’d like to do less of? Is there something specific you’d like your partner to know about? It can be something you’re considering about yourself, a realization you’ve had, or something that’s going on at work. It doesn’t have to be specific about your relationship. It’s about practicing the skills that allow you to know one another.
5) Feeling impatient and hopeless about the future:
You forget how long it has been since you last felt connected to your partner. How long has it been since you lost that connection? How long has it been since the two of you began to feel isolation and miscommunication? Sometimes we begin to feel as though we’ve been unhappy forever, and there is no way out of it. Our current state somehow becomes our permanent state in our minds, and we forget that we have the power to change the situation. The decision to make a change has to happen, and then it will take time to implement the behaviors and habits that will create that change. Sometimes, we become so impatient to experience the good part that we don’t even know if it’s worth trying to get there. We must accept the current state of affairs and commit to it being a process.
I’m not saying that it will take the exact amount of time to fix as the time the issues have been going on, but I do want you to recognize the length of time there has been a communication issue in your relationship so that you can approach this topic with patience and grace. Things didn’t go sideways overnight. These patterns weren’t established all at once. Just like it takes time to walk into something, it takes time to find your way back out. It even takes time to go through if that’s the route you want to opt for. Be patient with yourself and your partner.
If you’ve been making these common mistakes, don’t be too hard on yourself. The reason they’re common is because so many couples make them! Identify for yourself why you want to improve your communication, and allow your partner to do the same. Find the places where your wants and goals overlap, and begin there. Consider that the more healthy your communication, the more efficient you are in creating and maintaining happiness. Determine for yourself where your boundaries are; at what point will you feel that your partner is putting in an equal amount of communication effort to you? How will each of you know when communication is strong? Work towards that mutual understanding and be patient with yourselves.
Embracing You Therapy Can Help to Improve the Communication Issues
If the communication issues in your relationship have been causing more and more distress, chaos, and disconnection in your couple’s relationship, reach out to us to learn more about how couples therapy can help you.
Contact us today for your complimentary 20-minute phone consultation with our Client Care Coordinator.