Healthy communication is the heartbeat of any relationship, a tie that connects two individuals, allowing them to understand, empathize, and support each other in the good and bad times. A solid relationship filled with harmony and understanding relies heavily on effective communication.

When communication breaks down within a relationship, it can be incredibly distressing for both partners. Understanding and acknowledging the underlying issues and implementing effective strategies can help re-establish a healthy and harmonious connection between partners, restoring the bond you shared and allowing for healing.

Causes of Communication Breakdown in a Relationship

  • Misaligned Expectations: One common source of communication breakdown is the presence of unspoken or conflicting expectations. It is very typical for partners to have different ideas or opinions about their roles, responsibilities, or the direction of the relationship. When these expectations remain unspoken or misunderstood, it can lead to frustration and resentment. For example, Tamara wanted her husband, Aiden, to be more active in household chores and parenting duties. She was constantly frustrated that he sat in front of the TV when he came home and did not want to help her with the kids or the nightly chores. However, Aiden believed in a more traditional division of labor. He focused on his career, providing for the family, and thought his wife was happy as a homemaker and mother. This misalignment in their expectations created tension and conflicts within their marriage, leaving Tamara feeling hurt and used while Aiden felt frustrated. Neither were happy, yet they did not address the issue. This example emphasizes the importance of open communication and the need to compromise when resolving such matters.
  • Emotional Distance: Over time, emotional distance can develop in a marriage, causing partners to become less engaged in open, meaningful conversations. This emotional gap may result from unresolved conflicts, unaddressed issues, apathy, or external stressors, such as work pressures or financial concerns.
  • Poor Communication Patterns: Negative communication patterns, such as criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling, can erode any chance of positive communication and lead to escalating conflicts and further deterioration of communication. This cyclical problem eventually spins out of control, leading to a collapse in trust, destroying feelings of love, and creating a wall between the couple that may feel insurmountable.
  • Unresolved Issues: Unresolved conflicts or past issues can continue to fester, making it difficult for couples to communicate effectively in the present. These unresolved issues can trigger emotional reactions such as anger, resentment, apathy, or distrust, creating tension, distance, and a communication breakdown where both parties feel victimized.

Consequences of Communication Breakdown

The consequences of communication breakdown in a relationship are profound and can have a lasting impact on both partners:

  • Increased Conflict: A small unresolved argument often leads to more frequent and intense conflicts that continue to escalate. This can strain a relationship further and, in extreme cases, result in emotional or even physical harm.
  • Emotional Distress: Both partners may experience frustration, resentment, sadness, and anger due to poor communication. These negative emotions can take a toll on your emotional well-being. One person may find themselves getting sick all the time, another may not be sleeping, and this, in turn, affects their health. Our emotional and physical bodies are inextricably linked. We must take care of both the physical and emotional for the good of ourselves and our partners.
  • Decreased Intimacy: When communication breaks down between a couple, it can likely result in reduced emotional and physical intimacy. This significantly impacts the quality of any relationship, leading to feelings of resentment as the couple slowly drifts further apart. 
  • Risk of Separation or Divorce: Persistent communication breakdown can sadly lead to a breakdown of the relationship itself, as partners may consider separation or divorce the only viable solution.

Overcoming communication breakdowns in a relationship is challenging but certainly achievable. It begins with a slight change on your behalf; your partner may initially not show signs of wanting to make changes but try not to feel disheartened. When you make changes, it encourages your partner to follow suit. The following strategies can help couples work towards effective and harmonious communication:

  • Self-Reflection: Take time to self-reflect to understand your communication styles, triggers, and emotional responses. Are you an assertive communicator? A passive-aggressive communicator? Do you tend to take on a more passive role, or do you attack conversation head-on, aggressively? This self-awareness can help individuals take responsibility for their role in communication breakdown. In a past blog post, I covered harmful versus assertive communication, so take the time to learn and understand how you communicate and how to make changes to encourage communication with your partner. That post has many tips and helpful hints, which I will link to at the end of this article.
  • Open and Honest Communication: Encourage open, honest, and non-judgmental communication. Create a safe space to share and express your thoughts, feelings, and concerns without fear of criticism or blame. You may like to do this in a setting away from home, take a stroll in the park or a walk on the beach, and talk openly with each other.
  • Active Listening: Listening to your partner’s perspective is crucial for understanding their viewpoint. Avoid interrupting and practice empathy by trying to see the situation from their point of view.
  • Work as a team: View your partnership from a joint perspective when conflicts arise. Look at the relationship as a ‘we’ instead of a singular. It is easy to look at the world through your eyes, but to do so through your partner takes patience, understanding, and empathy. Practice this technique when listening to an opinion that may not be similar to your own. Put yourself in their shoes and try to understand your partner more deeply. The more you practice, the easier it becomes, and when an argument arises, you can talk together openly, understanding each other’s viewpoints while quickly resolving the issue.
  • Seek Professional Help: Couples experiencing persistent communication breakdowns may benefit from the guidance of a trained marriage therapist. As a couples therapist, I provide a neutral, supportive environment and offer valuable insights and techniques for improving communication. My details are at the end of this blog post.
  • Conflict Resolution Skills: Learning and applying practical conflict resolution skills, such as compromise and negotiation, can help couples address and resolve issues without escalating arguments. A relationship is about give and take, understanding that we can make changes (within reason) for the person we love, and being confident enough to ask for changes to me made in return. 
  • Revisit Expectations: Touching base with each other and revising prior conflicting expectations can prevent misunderstandings and align both partners on their goals and roles within the relationship. It always feels good when you are both on the same page.

Communication breakdown in a marital relationship is a challenging issue that affects many couples, but it is not insurmountable. By understanding the root causes and consequences of communication breakdown and implementing strategies that enable open, honest, and empathetic communication, couples can begin to heal their relationship. A thriving relationship relies on solid communication; talking with your partner about issues can lead to a healthier, more harmonious partnership. Isn’t that what we all want?

To learn more about communication and its importance in your relationship, download our mini-course: “Discover harmony in your relationship: A Psychologist’s guide to conflict resolution.”

This mini-course introduces you to the concept and principles of Verbal Aikido and its application in marital communication. Verbal Aikido empowers you to resolve marital conflict harmoniously, fostering unity in your relationship. We then explore the importance of emotional connection and how modern-day technology has entirely changed our communication methods. Finally, we learn about conflict igniters, what this is, and how this behavior leads to contention and disharmony, and we teach you how to address these behaviors effectively and harmoniously to achieve resolution.

Our entire course is also available on our website, as well as books, our blog, and other classes., follow the link, and start your journey to a harmonious relationship.

To schedule an appointment, please click here.

Thanksgiving is a time of joy, celebration, and eating massive amounts of food while the buttons on our pants strain for dear life. It’s when families come together to create lasting memories and reminisce about past feasts, succulent turkey, and football games won and lost. However, this time of year can also be challenging for many, as it brings the dynamics and tensions within family units to the forefront. 

As the big day approaches, stress levels increase, which can have a domino effect. Someone may have a bad day and snap at you in the store. This makes you mad, and you arrive home feeling vexed and annoyed and, in turn, take it out on your partner. Anger and stress are unwanted gifts that keep giving, which tends to be exacerbated this time of year.

As a family therapist, I’ve witnessed firsthand the struggles that people face when dealing with problematic family members during the holidays. I want to offer some guidance and advice to help you through the holiday season.

The Reality Behind Holiday and Family Conflicts:

The holiday season creates the perfect environment to re-ignite deep-seated family dynamics, stirring up emotions we thought were long forgotten. For instance, adult children returning home may revert to their old roles, leading to power struggles and disagreements. Past grievances can resurface, rekindling old conflicts while spending extended periods in close quarters with family. This can lead to cabin fever, sibling rivalries, or other interpersonal issues that magnify underlying tensions.

Awkward Conversations:

The holiday season brings out both the best and worst in people. Someone will inevitably bring up a topic of conversation that rubs another the wrong way; it wouldn’t be the holiday season without it. 

I know a couple who are asked every Thanksgiving, ‘So, when will you start a family?” They have no intention of having children, and they explain this every year, but people continue to ask and always feel uncomfortable.

So, how do you react to questions or topics such as this, especially when sensitive matters such as politics, religion, or personal life choices arise? Here are some strategies to help you navigate these conversations:

  • Redirect the Conversation: When a touchy subject arises, gently shift the conversation towards a safer, neutral topic. For example, if politics come up, you might say, “Speaking of politics, did you catch the latest ball game or binge-watch anything recently?” Try to lighten the atmosphere without being dismissive.
  • Active Listening: When someone expresses their opinion, actively listen without immediately responding or placing judgment. This can help defuse tension and encourage open dialogue. 
  • Practice Empathy: When engaged in a conversation you may disagree with, try using empathy to understand the topic from the other person’s perspective. Put yourself in their shoes and look at how and why they may have their opinion. We sometimes argue before the other person can finish their thought and miss a crucial point that changes everything. Remember, it is OK not to agree with everyone; we all have the right to our opinions.
  • Set Boundaries: Communicate your boundaries politely but firmly. If someone persists in discussing a topic that makes you uncomfortable, say something like, “I’d prefer not to discuss this right now. Let’s focus on enjoying our time together.”

Toxic Family Members:

Dealing with a toxic family member adds yet another layer of complexity to our holiday season. I know several patients who dread this time of year; their stress levels rise because they know they have to deal with that one person in the family who seems to go out of their way to make their day miserable. Here are some strategies to manage such situations:

  • Choose Your Battles: Not every issue needs to be confronted during the holidays. Assess the importance of the problem and decide whether it’s worth addressing. Conversations can be shelved and picked up at a more appropriate time. There may be topics that you will always have differing views on. It is OK to agree to disagree and say as such in a kind yet firm manner, for example: “I don’t think we are going to see eye to eye on this topic; let’s drop this and chat about something else.”
  • Limit Interaction: Spend time with toxic family members in small doses, and make sure you have a support system in place to help you cope with any negativity. Chat with your support people ahead of time; you can even have a code word or subtle gesture you can give them so they can step in and help distract from the conversation. Be sure to ask them if they feel comfortable doing this so they don’t have to choose sides.
  • Be Kind to You: Prioritize self-care during the holiday season. Engage in activities that help you relax and recharge, such as walking, exercising, or just taking time away from the family to read a chapter of your book, walk your dog, unwind, and lower your stress levels. 
  • Keep a positive outlook and embrace your inner smile: When things begin to go south and tensions rise, keeping a smile on our faces and our thoughts in a positive place can be challenging. However, remember that this time of year is fleeting; things will return to normal, and there is the opportunity to create some fantastic memories. When your stress levels build, think of something you are looking forward to or focus on the positives of the holiday. You may be thrilled to see your Dad after many months of separation, or your sister may have done something ridiculous that you can both laugh about for years to come. It is the small things that keep us going.

Remember that every family has its quirks, and while conflicts may arise, they don’t define the entire holiday experience. Focus on the love and shared moments that make the holiday season special, and remember, if things get stressful, there is always pumpkin pie!

To learn more about effective communication and keeping a positive outlook during stressful times, download our mini-course, “Rise above the chaos and embrace your inner smile.”

In this mini-course, we emphasize the importance of centering your mind and body, creating a state of mental and physical calm. We teach you the value of being mindful of your emotions and the importance of acting objectively rather than subjectively. Additionally, we explore concepts such as “dropping the bone,” mastering the art of taking the high road in an argument, and how to deflect sarcasm. While these skills are crucial to every relationship, they are often overlooked. Here, we guide you and help you develop these essential skills so that you can rely on them when stress and conflict inevitably arise.

Our entire course is also available on our website, as well as books, our blog, and other classes., follow the link and start your journey to a harmonious relationship.