Relationship Tips

Understanding Your Partner’s Communication Style Is Key To Strengthening Your Relationship—Here’s Where To Start

Photo: Getty Images / Jordi Salas
Whether you’ve been with your partner for three weeks, three months, or three years, communication is crucial when it comes to fostering and maintaining a healthy relationship. However, it is entirely possible (and fairly common) for partners to communicate very differently, says marriage and family therapist Becky Stuempfig, LMFT. Differing communication styles in relationships can make things challenging—but it's not necessarily a relationship red flag. (Cue a big sigh of relief.)

Sick of being lost in translation? You’ll need to take time to fully understand and respect your partner’s preferred communication style in order to bridge that gap. "It’s important to understand this stuff because the number one rule of effective communication—in any format—is to know your audience," says psychotherapist Annalise Oatman, LCSW, founder of Deeper Well Therapy. “If you know your partner's communication style and you are speaking their language, you are much more likely to feel seen, understood, and appreciated by each other, and you're much less likely to railroad each other or step on each other's toes.”

Not only does it make day-to-day conversations easier, understanding each others' communication styles allows you to fight fairly (and effectively) with your partner, says marriage and family therapist Marley Howard, LMFT. “You can simply resolve the dispute if you understand your partner's tendency,” she says, while also being able to “empathize with them and strengthen your relationship.”

The bottom line: “How your partner communicates may be different [from how you do], but how you each listen and what you comprehend from the communication is what can potentially make or break a relationship,” says marriage and family therapist Christine Altidor, LMFT, of No Filter Therapy. Ahead, a full rundown of the different communication styles in relationships, plus therapist-backed tips to help you navigate them.

The 4 main communication styles in relationships, according to therapists

1. Assertive communication

All the therapists interviewed for this story listed “assertive” as the ideal communication style. Per Stuempfig, those who are considered assertive are effectively able to express their needs, identify their feelings, and take responsibility for their actions without placing blame on the other person. Additionally, “assertive communicators are great at advocating for themselves clearly, calmly, and directly,” says Oatman. People with an assertive communication style tend to make "I" statements during arguments or discussions, such as "I feel..." and "I need..." (more on that below), and are respectful of the feelings and needs of others.

2. Aggressive communication

Couples therapist Omar Ruiz, LMFT, says that aggressive communicators are primarily “focused on overtaking a conversation for the sake of winning, not taking any consideration of the other person's feelings or needs.” These folks often come across as "abrasive, demanding, explosive, threatening, and intimidating," he says. They can be defensive when confronted, making discussions challenging at best.

3. Passive communication

“Passive communicators typically do not communicate their sentiments or wants, allowing others to do so instead,” says Howard. (They might say things like "I'll eat whatever!" or, "I'm okay doing anything you want to do.") Basically, they're unable to say no, says Howard. This behavior contributes to a pattern of "invalidating your own thoughts and feelings to defer to others," says Altidor, which can “lead to internal conflict and frustration that you’re not being heard.” That's why passive communicators often feel isolated in relationships, adds Stuempfig: They're not getting their needs met.

4. Passive-aggressive communication

Like the passive communicators, passive-aggressive folks don't directly share their needs or feelings. “Rather than confronting a person or topic, passive-aggressive communicators will complain to themselves,” says Howard. “They are unable to express their emotions, employ facial expressions that do not show how they feel, and may even deny that there is a problem at all.” For example, says Stuempfig, a person who uses a passive-aggressive communication style may choose to use the silent treatment with their partner as a way of lashing out rather than explaining how they feel.

4 tips for managing different communication styles in a relationship (and improving your overall skills)

As mentioned above, just because you and your partner have different ways of communicating doesn't meant your relationship is doomed to fail. Now that you've honed in on how you communicate (versus your partner's tendencies), read on for some expert-backed ways to help navigate your differences more effectively.

1. Set boundaries

According to Ruiz, even the best communicators can get angry at times. This is when boundaries can come in handy—“especially if there is a need to calm down, avoid conversation intensity, and allow both parties to process what just happened.” To steer clear of conflict in the heat of the moment, you and your partner should discuss personal boundaries ahead of time—like not raising your voices at each other, for example—so that you have a plan in place that works for the both of you should things get heated.

2. Use “I” statements

Using “I” statements is a great way to practice assertive communication, says Stuempfig, since it allows us to take responsibility for our own emotions without placing blame. As such, the other person is “less likely to become defensive because they do not feel criticized,” she says, making it easier to have a productive conversation. “Even if the person [needs] to take responsibility for their actions, it is best to approach the conversation by stating how you felt and were impacted by what was said or done,” says Ruiz.

3. Avoid the silent treatment

Icing someone out is never the way to go. Not only is it hurtful, but it can also "stall any progress in the relationship because nothing is being resolved," says Ruiz. Sure, the silent treatment may provide some (temporary) reprieve between discussions. But when you think of the bigger picture, Ruiz says that this does not offer any real or effective solutions in the long run.

4. Have an exit strategy

Occasionally, says Ruiz, “discussions can quickly turn into arguments,” which is why it is best to come up with an exit strategy in advance. That way, both people are able to calm down and “come back to the discussion in a better headspace.” Furthermore, this allows you to walk away calmly and respectfully without offending the other individual, who may otherwise think you don’t care about the problem at hand. So, yes, despite the age-old mantra, sometimes it is okay to step away from a discussion and go to bed angry—especially if it means you'll be in a better place to resolve things the next day.

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