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  • Isabelle Morley, PsyD

What is "Bad Communication" in a Relationship?

A primary reason for couples seeking therapy is to improve their communication. But what does it mean to have bad communication, and what can we do about it?

The most common reason couples come to my practice is to communicate better. And indeed, "poor communication" is often cited as a reason for conflict and dissatisfaction in relationships.

But what does that even mean?

Communication issues can fall into several different categories, which I'll explain here, and these issues also indicate a critical unmet need, which I will also explain.

Bad communication means people feel hurt, unheard, and lost in a conversation.

"We're Bad at Communicating"

When people talk about bad communication in a relationship, they usually mean that they end up in confusing, upsetting, or escalating conversations.

Many couples will describe feeling as though the conflict had a life of its own, going off on different tangents and becoming bigger and more confusing to the point where they didn't know what they were even talking about anymore.

Bad communication means people feel hurt, unheard, and lost in a conversation.

This can be incredibly distressing to a couple. Any conversation is an opportunity to connect, and having repeated conflicts with "bad communication" can make partners feel lonely, distanced, and angry.

Bad communication has two main components:

1. Poor Listening

We need our partners to listen to us with care and respect, especially during conflict. If our partners don't listen to what we say, they won't understand our intentions and feelings. And if they don't understand our intentions and feelings, they're likely to respond in a way that ends up feeling invalidating, dismissive, or avoidant.

People often get caught up thinking about their perspectives or arguments during a conflict and don't take the time to really listen to their partner and consider their perspective. And, if they're flooded, they won't actually be capable of effectively hearing their partner, which is why it's so important to take a break from a fight when this happens.

Examples include:

  • Only thinking about what you'll say and missing your partner's point.

  • Cherry picking parts of what they said and overlooking their overall message

  • Overly focusing on one word or phrase and making it an issue.

  • Ignoring them or avoiding the conversation entirely

  • Giving excuses why you can't talk about the issue

  • Trying to escape the conversation because you feel so overwhelmed (flooded)

2. Poor Responding

Again, we also need our partners to respond effectively to us, especially during conflict. This includes the exact words and metacommunication (the nonverbal cues such as tone of voice, facial expressions, hand gestures, etc.). When our partner responds to us in a hurtful way, it will escalate the conflict.

Poor responding happens because people either don't have the knowledge or skills to communicate more effectively or because they are so upset (perhaps even flooded) that they don't want to or can't access these skills. In other words, some people genuinely don't know that the way they're talking is hurtful or unproductive, and some people know it but are so angry they don't care.

Examples include:

  • Being defensive in response to everything they say

  • Using sarcasm or being mean because you're angry

  • Dismissing your partner's message or feelings

  • Unhelpful metacommunication, like eye rolling, throwing your hands up in frustration, harsh tone of voice, and looking elsewhere while your partner talks.

  • Getting angry or annoyed at your partner and making the issue about them

  • Catastrophizing or overgeneralizing the conflict

... When fights get confusing and big, we're not upset just because they're spiraling out of control but also because we're feeling less secure and connected to the one person we really need to feel secure and connected to.

Bad Communication = An Unmet Need

Bad communication is so distressing because it means we have an important unmet need: to be heard and understood by our partner.

This topic is an entire blog post, but let's briefly discuss this unmet need. In Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), created by Dr. Sue Johnson, a core tenet is that our romantic partners become primary attachment figures. Whereas our first attachment figures are our caregivers when we're infants (usually mom and dad, but any adult who cares for you), we move our attachment needs to other relationships as adults. We look to these relationships for the same security and connection that we used to look to our parents for. We are looking to answer these questions: Will this person be there for me when I'm hurting? Will they help if I ask? Or will they turn me away, ignore me, dismiss me, or even worse, be mean to me when I'm struggling?

Now, the caregiver-child relationship has a very different structure than an adult-adult romantic relationship. Caregivers are supposed to provide unconditional love and support to their children, while adults are not necessarily taught or expected to do the same for their partners. Adults tend to look out for themselves and have a hard time stepping out of their own feelings/needs so that they can be there for their partner and provide the connection and security of a safe attachment. However, this can absolutely be done.

So, when fights get confusing and big, we're not upset just because they're spiraling out of control but also because we're feeling less secure and connected to the one person we need to feel secure and connected to. And often, the more we seek to reestablish that connection, the more we end up pushing them away (think of the classic example of someone becoming needy for time or attention when they feel ignored, which makes their partner want even more space from them, and so the cycle goes).

"Sounds Like Us, So What Now?"

If your relationship has poor communication, fear not. Many relationships do, and that's because we don't actually teach people how to communicate effectively or maintain emotional closeness when they're upset.

Luckily, most couples therapy orientations look at how to accomplish this and have various, often complimentary, strategies. EFT focuses on fostering a safe attachment, Gottman therapy has research on specific skills couples use to feel close and de-escalate, and RLT makes people examine and change their behaviors that get in the way of being connected. All of these strategies are helpful, and some couples find one approach more effective than another.

If you've tried to communicate better but find yourselves repeatedly in the same frustration and hurtful conversation, it might be time to find some help.

Here are a few quick tips:

  • Go into any conversation with the goal of understanding your partner's perspective, feelings, and needs.

  • View your partner as an ally, not an enemy.

  • Think about how you would want your partner to listen/respond during a difficult conversation and act accordingly.

  • Empathize and validate!

  • Put aside your defensiveness and arguments, take what they're saying and consider it.

  • Take a break if you're feeling flooded.

  • Offer reassuring and loving statements throughout the conversation; let your partner know that even though you're fighting, you love them and want to work through it.

Whether or not you do some couples therapy to improve your communication, remember that good communication's primary goal is maintaining emotional closeness and safety. Truly hearing, respecting, and validating what your partner says is step one.

1 Comment

Jun 19, 2023

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