Top 5 Communication Problems for Couples

You’re niggling. You’re nitpicking. You’re arguing.

And before you know it, you’re not doing a whole lot else. The gaps between the fights get shorter. The silences get longer. The fun times you once had together have dried up with time, work, kids and the overwhelming demands of ordinary life.

Is this NORMAL? you wonder, while seeing hordes of happy, smiling couples espousing the virtues of their loving partners all over your social media accounts. Does everyone else find this relationship sh*t easy?

Answer: No. Intimate relationships are our greatest test. Even couples who have been together 75 years when asked the secret of a long marriage will offer words like flexibility, tolerance — and gin!

Studies indicate only about a quarter of couples who need — or could benefit from — relationship therapy will seek it. And after the early signs of trouble they wait an average of six years before signing up, which means problems have often become deeply embedded.

“We don’t — or can’t — talk anymore”, is the number one catchcry of couples entering therapy.

Sometimes there’s been a trigger for the problem, like a sexual or financial betrayal, a showdown you just can’t find a way back from. But often it’s just time, life and a slow burning disconnect. A feeling that your partner doesn’t hear what you’re saying — or worse, that’s it’s selective: that he or she is not even interested.

What does poor communication really mean?

What couples are really saying is we’ve lost our connection. And we have no idea how to get it back.

Sadly, you can’t just talk your relationship out of trouble. Talking at length may not help you feel connected — it may even make things worse because the same old problems are endlessly raised and never fully resolved. They’re just put on the back burner until someone strikes another match.

The key is to make sure you’re speaking the same language, and that the conversations are productive and offer a way forward.

Here (in no particular order) are the five problems that most often rear up in therapy — and some tips for easing them.

  1. Fixating on an issue — this is particularly common when someone has cheated and the hurt partner finds it impossible to let it go. The slightest provocation or reminder can set off an argument. TIP: If you find yourself obsessing on an issue, you need a process and strategies to work through these issues. If your own reading or investigations don’t hit on something that resonates, ask a professional.
  2. Inability to express own needs — it is important to say what you want and need from the relationship. Difficulties often arise when people expect their partner to have read their mind. TIP: If you have difficulty with verbal expression, or you tend to get upset, write things down before you discuss them with your partner.
  3. Not being able to understand another’s viewpoint — listening is good but you have to absorb what the other person is saying and show that you have heard them through your actions as well as words. TIP: Put your phone away and look your partner in the eye when they’re talking. Then come up with one thing you can do to show you’ve heard them.
  4. Attacking your partner’s character over their behavior — “I’d appreciate you helping with the dishes” is more likely to get a positive response than “you’re such a lazy ass”. TIP: Keep comments about negative behaviour specific to a situation or single behavour. Sweeping generalisations can hurt.
  5. Emotional response that is too quick or harsh — Being overly defensive or blaming are primary offenders here. This is particularly common if you have been heavily criticised by a parent or in other relationships. TIP: When you are upset or annoyed it’s important to to push the pause button (take some time out) so you can consider the rationality of your response instead of acting on impulse and lashing out.

So Are We Doomed?

The good news is relationships can and do demonstrate extraordinary resilience. But they must be nurtured and maintained. We all need skills to deal with conflict, pain and devastation — and also just to navigate the different phases relationships go through.

Not everyone needs professional help. But consider it if you can’t find a way forward yourselves. Relationship therapy is not an admission of failure. It’s just like a health check. If your body was sick you’d go to the doctor. At least I hope you would. Doesn’t your relationship deserve the same care?


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