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I’m a Couples Therapist, and These Are the 6 Biggest Communication Issues I See in Relationships

Allie Flinn

Allie FlinnMay 13, 2020

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There are many fictional moments would come to way less depressing ends if people could simply communicate properly. The most recent couple to cause me to sigh heavily at my television screen in frustration in relation to communication issues in relationships is Marianne and Connell, protagonists of Hulu’s Normal People, because they’re simply unable to just say what’s on their damn minds.

Obviously, communication issues in relationships aren’t limited to television characters (I know this all too well from personal experience). In fact, at some point, nearly all of us have had real-life run-ins with a communication problem because, as relationship and sex therapist Vanessa Marin says, “it’s not like anyone ever taught us how to be amazing communicators, right?”

Furthermore, it’s possible that the coronavirus pandemic is making matters of communication even trickier. “On an individual, relational, and societal level, COVID-19 has highlighted so many issues, many of which were not created by the virus, but have been amplified by it,” says psychotherapist Kate Deibler, LCSW. “People are being forced to sit and look at things within themselves and their relationships that they have successfully avoided in the past.”

But, just because communication issues in relationships are common doesn’t mean they need to be constant. “The reality is that communication doesn’t need to be that difficult, but we’re just not taught the practical tools that we need,” says Marin. Below, learn the six most common communication issues the psychologists see in relationships, plus, how to fix them.

The 6 most common communication issues in relationships, and how psychologists suggest addressing them.

1. Just not communicating

“People ignore uncomfortable communication, thinking that it will pass without being addressed, but this sort of denial rarely works,” Deibler says. “This type of thinking and subsequent inaction can lead to years of avoiding issues that are ultimately hurting the relationship.”

To fix it, you’re going to have to communicate about your communication patterns with your partner. It’s important to make sure the aim of this meta-style check-in is to explore how you and your partner can improve communication itself, not to resolve any other issues that have arisen as a result of the root communication issues.

Try asking the following three questions from Marin to get started:

  1. “What do you think we do well when it comes to communication?”
  2. “How could we improve our communication?”
  3. “What do you need from me when it comes to communication?”

Can you imagine how the plot of Normal People might have been different for Connell and Marianne if those two had just asked each other these questions? Marin also recommends having a regular check-in so you’re able to address issues before they come up, instead of bottling them up inside until they explode, and suddenly your misguided frustration manifests into a fight about whether or not it’s okay to leave the spatula in the pan while you’re cooking.

2. Worrying things will get worse if you delve deeper

“People often fear that if they dive deeper into their difficulties, things will get worse. However, it is quite the opposite: Friction grows when it is ignored,” Deibler says. “Conflict is inevitable, and the only way to successfully resolve tension is to communicate about it.” So while working through issues head-on in this way can feel very scary and uncomfortable, it’s important to do nonetheless.

3. Expecting your partner to be a mind-reader

Apparently, you can’t expect your partner to read your mind, so it’s key to know what you personally want and need, and—yep, you guessed it—communicate that. Marin says to successfully get introspective, “take a few minutes by yourself to figure out what’s really going on for you. Ask yourself questions like, ‘Why is this so important?’ and ‘What do I need?'”

4. Trying to be right

It’s not effective to approach any issue with the goal to be deemed correct. “There are three truths to every situation: your truth, your partner’s truth, and the objective reality,” Marin says. “You have to be willing to accept that your partner is having the experience that they’re having, even if it’s a wildly different experience than what you’re having.”

5. Getting defensive and not really listening

“The goal for communication should be understanding, not agreeing. Most couples think they’re supposed to get to agreement, which can cause so many problems,” Marin says, adding that it’s actually pretty likely that you’re not going to agree most of the time. What you are able to do, though, is understand each other, which requires listening and not try to “win.”

When couples fight, they often do not fight well; they are mean to each other, blaming or shaming to get their point across,” Deibler says. “Continuing to fight in a way that is harmful can be incredibly destructive for a relationship. If one can view the argument as an opportunity, tension actually has the possibility of leading to increased understanding and empathy.”

6. Shutting down and refusing to talk

“Oftentimes people stonewall because they’re feeling overwhelmed,” Marin says. To prevent this, she recommends taking a 20 minute time-out next time an inclination to retreat within presents itself. “Tell your partner that you want to return to the conversation once you’re in a better space to have it,” she says.

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