Are Unhealthy Communication Habits Ruining Your Relationship?

Does it seem like you and your partner are arguing about anything and everything lately? Do you often wonder how such small issues can get so out of hand? Is it common for conflicts to end with someone still feeling unheard, unsatisfied, and distant?

Our communication patterns can unintentionally damage our relationships. Over time, miscommunications can leave partners feeling more and more rejected, misunderstood, and lonely.  As feelings of desperation and helplessness increase, they can lead partners to become either more reactive or to shut-down.

Obtaining the support of a skilled therapist can be a big help in getting relationships back on track when couples experience these types of problems (the earlier the better, of course). However, if you are still unsure about whether to seek outside help, you might try keeping these five ideas in mind:

1. Slow it Down

Our brains are designed for efficiency, and as a result, we tend to process things very quickly. While this can be a real asset in many situations, it often acts as a liability when it comes to our communication. You might notice, for instance, that your arguments sometimes start out on one topic, but quickly become another. And maybe even another and another.

This is what is often referred to as “throwing in the kitchen sink,” meaning that anything and everything, including the kitchen sink, gets thrown into the argument. The risk of this happening can be great when two people with quick minds begin discussing matters, as each person makes connections between the newest sentence and their own perspectives.

So, although your brain might want to interpret what is happening right now based on what has happened in the past, or elsewhere, try to see this moment for the moment that it is. Do your best to focus on the here and now, and communicate about potential solutions for the future.

2. Identify Your Goal

This relates again to how our brains tend to make a lot of connections that can take us off track. The more that we say, the more risk there is that either we or our partners will make connections that take us in a different direction. To make sure that the most important messages are focused on and received, keep it simple.

Along these lines, challenge yourself to limit your message to a single sentence. Even write it down if you need help staying focused.

When considering our main messages, typically, the two primary pieces of information that we really want our partners to know is our feelings and needs. Unfortunately, we often feel too vulnerable to state these directly. Try it anyway. Complete the sentence: “I am feeling _____ and what I really need from you right now is __________.”

3. Listen for Feelings and Needs

Our partner’s biggest, most important messages will involve feelings and needs as well, even if they aren’t trying to communicate these directly. Unlike you, they may not have read this blog, and there may be a whole lot of extra stuff coming at you. Try to look for the underlying, simpler message in all of this.

Even when your partner’s message seems blaming or attacking, they are likely still attempting to communicate underlying feelings and needs. When their statements feel defensive, they may be trying to tell you that they are not all bad and are looking for reassurance that you do not see them that way. When their statements feel attacking, they may be feeling hurt inside.

Check in on what you think your partner is trying to communicate by reflecting their feelings and needs back to them. See if your ideas resonate with them. If so, you will probably see relief reflected in your partner’s response, and their reaction will soften. If not, your partner may try to adjust their message, so keep listening.

4. Agree to Take Turns

If you are both trying to be heard at once, the likelihood of either one of you really being heard is slim. And if either of you is just waiting for the other one to be finished speaking so that you can respond, the other will sense that they aren’t being listened to and probably won’t want to hear the response anyway.

Try to follow a rule suggested by one of the founders in psychotherapeutic approaches, Carl Rogers: “Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately, and to that speaker’s satisfaction.”* This will also help ensure that each person’s responses connect to the intended message, rather than adding unnecessary fuel to the fire with reactions based on inaccurate assumptions or fears.

This might mean that you have to take the initiative to listen first. Keep in mind there are benefits to this. One benefit is that listening allows you to understand your partner better. Another is that once your partner feels heard and understood, they should be more willing and able to hear you. In addition, hearing and understanding your partner’s feelings and needs more fully upfront may, at times, entirely change what you want your message to be.

5. Don’t Fight to Be Right

Sometimes in our quest to be understood, we believe it is necessary for our partner to admit we are “right.” It is not. Both partners’ views can be accepted as valid without one being “right” and the other “wrong.”

If one partner is fighting to be “right” or “win” then the other partner necessarily has to be “wrong” or “lose.” People usually defend against threats that they are “wrong” or “losing” because that makes them feel invalidated and misunderstood. The end result is then two people defending their own positions and neither feeling heard, understood, and validated.

It doesn’t have to be that way. It is absolutely possible for both partners to be understood and feel accepted while still holding two very different perspectives. This is what we need to do if we are to nurture healthy relationships with one another.

Putting it All Together

Communication can be quite challenging, especially in relationships where each partner has such a great impact on the life of the other. Emotions are likely to run high at times, and partners may even need to take a break and come back to communicate once they both have cooled off.

Once partners are ready to address their needs, the idea is to find “win-win” solutions for their partnership; not to have one partner feel victorious over the other. If each partner is able to listen with the intent to understand the other better, creative solutions can usually be found to support the needs of both partners.

When this happens, not only is the result a mutually satisfying solution, but feelings of respect and appreciation for one another are also likely to grow. With effective communication, the problems we face in our relationships can actually become avenues for deeper connection.

My goal is to help you find ways to connect more deeply with your partner. I know these skills are not easy, and when emotions are high they can be practically impossible to implement on our own. This is why so many people enlist a couples counselor to help them (therapists included). If you would like learn more about how couples therapy might help your relationship, click here.

If you have thoughts or feedback on this post, I would also love to hear your ideas. You can also email me here.


*Rogers, Carl. On Becoming A Person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1961, pp. 332.

Angie Dotzenrod, MA, LPC

Angie Dotzenrod, MA, LPC

Hi, I'm Angie! I am a therapist and owner of Through the Door Counseling. I work with couples who, like most of us, need some support to strengthen their relationships. Common goals that I work with include improving communication, increasing emotional security, and learning to find win-win solutions that honor the needs and values of both partners. To learn more about me, you can click here.