Talk It Out

7 Issues That Lead To Communication Breakdowns In A Relationship

And how to address them before it's too late.

Couple in kitchen arguing

Good communication is an essential part of every strong relationship. But that doesn’t mean you’ll get it right every time. Who among us hasn’t said one thing when we’ve meant another? Or, feeling stressed from work, entered a conversation with our spouse in too confrontational a headspace? Or become super defensive when rightfully called out on something we could work on? Such interactions aren’t great, but they happen because of course they do. In the near-constant dialogue that relationships require, there are bound to be plenty of missteps. The important thing is that we recognize our behavior, repair the mistake, and learn how to do better.

But then sometimes relationships experience a communication breakdown. The fundamentals of healthy communication are tossed aside, and conversations become so combative and frustrating that the dialogue stops altogether. Whether it’s due to one or both partners shutting down emotionally during conversations, refushing to engage altogether, or letting resentments cloud focus, unhealthy patterns form for various reasons. If they’re not dealt with, things will only become worse.

“Managing communication within marriage can be one of the toughest challenges couples face,” says Miriam Geiger, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “From listening barriers to unspoken feelings, there are many reasons why communication breakdowns happen in marriages — and it’s often difficult to understand exactly what went wrong.”

Identifying causes for concern before they become major issues is one of the best lines of defense couples can have. Here, then, according to relationship counselors and couples therapists, are some big signs to look out for — and some suggestions for getting back to a base level of good communication if you find yourself stuck.

1. Resentments Raise The Temperature

If one partner harbors a lot of resentment, it can be difficult to want to listen to what their partner has to say. Unresolved feelings and a negative attitude can cause tunnel vision, morphing normal conversations into what can seem like mocking discussions. A person might shut down or be unusually combative. That’s because resentment makes us fixate on things the other person may think have already been resolved or might not know is a problem.

How To Address It: Confront your resentment. Then, admit to your partner that you’re still bothered and find a time to peacefully continue the discussion. It’s also important to gain an awareness of your triggers and find coping mechanisms to help you engage in calmer discussions with your spouse. To try and circumvent any feelings mid-conversation, Geiger says to pause for a moment and try active listening. “In order to really understand where your partner is coming from, you’ve got to make sure you’re actively listening and engaging with them – not just waiting for your turn to speak,” says Geiger. “Ask clarifying questions and repeat back what they said so that they know you heard them correctly.”

2. Bottled-Up Feelings Cause A Breakdown

Sometimes one or both partners in a marriage will keep their feelings inside as a means of avoiding conflict. They’ll be evasive or only express the most surface emotions, leaving the other person to wonder what is really going on with them. Over time, this can leave the other person confused and uncertain, creating mistrust and misunderstanding. Assumptions start to form and resentments may pile.

How To Address It: Ask open-ended questions. “Instead of making assumptions about what your partner is thinking or feeling, try asking them directly in a non-judgmental way,” Geiger says. “Open-ended questions are a great way to start meaningful conversations and get to the root of an issue without seeming too accusatory or confrontational.”

3. Emotions Run Too High

When charged topics are discussed, one or both spouses may let their emotions, rather than rational thinking, take over. When that happens, it isn’t possible for either to communicate effectively, because the conversation becomes about each person’s reaction to the other’s emotional responses.

How To Address It: When tensions start to get high, this is the time for both of you to step away, regroup, and come back together when things are calmer. “While you are apart, take the time to regulate your emotions and use coping skills to bring down your emotional temperature,” says Dr. Cynthia King, clinical psychologist and the co-founder of FemFwd. “Also, don’t let a discussion last forever. Set a time limit and then stop. You can revisit it as many times as you need to in order to finish.”

4. Arguments About One Thing Become About Everything

When a disagreement starts, there’s an issue that serves as the flashpoint. However, what can happen very quickly is that that one issue blossoms into several, with unresolved transgressions from the past beginning to spill out until whatever you were initially arguing about is long forgotten. When you’re sidetracked by other issues, it can be difficult to return — or even remember — to the source of the initial disagreement.

How To Address It: One solution offered by Dr. King: Pretend you’re in a work meeting and when one person goes off-topic, the other can steer them back. “Agree on the main focus of the discussion,” says King. “Agree that if either of you starts to go off topic a gentle reminder be given to get back on track.”

5. Apologies Are Few And Far Between

If one person feels hurt, invalidated, or wronged during conversations and the other never apologies or admits wrongdoing, communication will stall. A history of non-apology communicates a lack of respect for a partner’s feelings and may likely cause them to feel unwilling to communicate for fear of getting hurt again.

How To Address It: “Even if you think you are owed an apology, check to see if you also need to say ‘I'm sorry,’” says author and relationship coach Laura Doyle. She suggests taking it a step further and making it a point to regularly express gratitude to your partner. “An apology coupled with appreciation will restore the intimacy in a hurry,” she says.

6. Reactions Are Quick And Fierce

A cycle of overreaction can dominate a relationship, causing one or both partners to recede inwards and self-isolate or lead to a shouting match that accomplishes nothing. Soon, interactions are avoided because nothing is ever resolved.

How to Address It: Focus on the fundamentals. Take a beat when your partner is speaking and listen to what he or she is trying to tell you. “Experiment with just saying ‘I hear you’ when your partner is speaking, rather than reacting,” says Doyle. “If your partner is baiting you into reacting, how does it serve your relationship to take the bait? By saying ‘I hear you,’ you neither agree or disagree but you are listening and your partner feels heard.”

7. There’s A Distinct Lack of Connection

Everyone gets bogged down by life, but if spouses are just going through the motions every day, eventually your communication will begin to suffer. Making time for such events as date nights is important. But it’s more about leaning into the fun of connecting with each other on a day-to-day basis.

How to Address It: Be spontaneous and playful, which will relax you both and make you eager to connect and communicate with each other. “Greet each other at the door with a smile and tell your partner how happy you are to see him,” says Doyle. “Seize every chance you can to be playful and not only will the communication keep flowing, but the passion and excitement you shared when you first meet will be ignited again.”