Problematic communication patterns between partners

couple in conflict image
It is a couple’s communication pattern, or their approach to dealing with their differences, that is often holding them back.  

All couples, if they are together long enough, will experience conflict.   How the conflict manifests itself can differ, however.   It is normal and even healthy to argue from time to time.  But repetitive, unresolved conflict is destructive and will destroy intimacy over time.  On the other hand, avoidance of conflict can also be  problematic because issues go unaddressed. 

When couples either argue too much or avoid arguing all together, they can begin to drift apart.  Before they know it, they find themselves feeling disconnected from each other.  Couples who have fallen into that trap often report that they feel lonely, detached, and have ‘fallen out of love’ with their partner. 

Couples often come to therapy to get help with issues around money, parenting, sex, responsibilities, mismatched expectations, or differences in values.  However, I have found that those issues are often not the central problem.  Rather, it is the couple’s communication pattern, or their approach to dealing with their differences, that is often what is holding them back.  

Some common communication pitfalls couples fall into include one or more of the following:

Attack/Counterattack:  One will attack and point out shortcomings and the other will respond by striking back.  This pattern can result in both people feeling hurt and offended, often such that their willingness to listen, compromise and negotiate is drastically affected.

Attack/Defend:  Similar to attack and counterattack, but one partner will repeatedly defend him or herself about perceived or real criticism.  The result is that the person being attacked feels belittled and the other feels frustrated that the problems are not improving.

Avoidance:  Couples avoid addressing issues and may pretend that they will go away or that everything is ‘fine.’  They may also assume that their partner knows, or ‘should’ know what they are feeling.  Avoidance is often caused by fear- fear of conflict, fear of dealing with your emotions or your partner’s emotions or fear of being assertive.  Sometimes avoidance is a result of just not being able to identify and express the underlying problem.  Over time, however, avoidance can result in problems becoming even more problematic over time since it often results in confusion, resentment, and more passive- aggressive behavior.

Demand/Withdraw:  One partner will try to have their needs met by telling the other they need to change, and the other partner reacts by withdrawing or shutting down.   The more that one withdraws, the more the partner demands, which then drives the couple further and further apart.

Blaming and labeling:  Couples frame issues in terms of the other’s character, rather than in terms of specific differences about feelings, experiences or needs.  Blaming and labeling increases defensiveness, anger and hurt.  It drives a wedge between the couple.

Overgeneralizing:  Statements that include “You always” or “You never”.  These are global statements leave the recipient feeling unfairly attacked. Another example of overgeneralizing is when one or both partners see the entire relationship as flawed, rather than viewing problems as specific issues that can be addressed.  Overgeneralizing that the entire relationship is problematic will cause the problems to be more overwhelming than they really are.

When should you consider couples therapy? Again, all couples are bound to have some conflict on occasion.  Negotiating conflict is part of a healthy relationship.  However, when conflict is too frequent, or too intense, couples therapy can help you identify and change your unhelpful approaches.  Couples therapy can help you re-establish your connection to each other.

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