You’ve probably heard it a million times before: Communication is the key to healthy relationships. We all know this universal truth by now. And yet, it can still be tricky to recognize bad communication in practice — especially when you’re the one failing to communicate well.
It’s nothing to be ashamed about. Most people fail to communicate in healthy and effective ways — or fail to communicate altogether — every now and then. Hell, even relationship experts themselves will trip up on this stuff from time to time (guilty). We’re human, and we all make mistakes.
The key is being able to recognize when you’re slipping into an unhealthy communication pattern, catching yourself, and course-correcting in the moment. So, in the interest of self-awareness, here are a few signs you might be a bad communicator, and how to do a little better the next time you’re having an issue with a partner.
1. You Criticize Your Partner
In conflicts, it’s so common to use criticism as a way of conveying unmet needs. “You’re always late” is a stand-in for “My time is important to me, and I feel sad and frustrated when I’m sitting around at a restaurant by myself waiting for you,” or “It’s important to me that we arrive on time to social events, and I want us to prioritize that.”
Here’s the truth: most criticisms are just needs, hurts, and requests being communicated in the most ineffective, inflammatory ways. It takes a rare person to respond well to “You’re so difficult” or “Can you stop nagging me for once?”
Communicating effectively means expressing what you want in a way that makes it easy for the other person to understand your ask and respond well to it. More broadly, being a good partner means trying your damn best not to make your partner feel bad about themselves, even in the moments when your needs aren’t (yet) being met.
What to do instead: When in doubt, use “I” statements. Try your best to start your sentences with “I” instead of “you” (“I feel really frustrated when we arrive late to events” instead of “You always make us late”). Focus on communicating how you feel about the situation and what you need, instead of throwing harsh labels onto your partner.
If you do need to describe a specific thing your partner is doing that upsets you, avoid words like “always,” “never,” or any other phrasing that implies an absolute about your partner. A simple “I’ve noticed that you’ve been doing X the last few days” conveys your observations without condemning their character.
2. You Raise Your Voice
Most people raise their voice in an argument as a way of conveying how strongly they feel something. We rarely do this consciously — in fact, it’s usually an involuntary reaction to having negative emotions that we can’t manage in any other way other than externalizing it through shouting.
On an emotional level, this behavior is not terribly different from a child throwing a temper tantrum because they haven’t yet learned how to deal with their emotions effectively. When we yell at a partner, at best, we are momentarily regressing back to that early-life coping mechanism because we don’t know what else to do or how else to communicate what we’re feeling. At worst, we’re subconsciously trying to bully the other person into submission, hoping that if we talk loudly enough, they’ll eventually just give in.
On a practical level, yelling at your partner is of course the least effective way to achieve your goal in a conflict: that is, getting them to care about something you care about. No one likes being yelled at, and it’s usually a fast track to making your partner shut down or fight fire with fire by yelling back. Communication often breaks down completely thereafter.
What to do instead: If you notice yourself raising your voice in an argument, take a breath and get centered. Reconnect to the calmer, lucid part of your brain. Apologize to your partner for raising your voice, and then try to restate what you said again in a slower and non-threatening tone. Use your actual words to communicate how upset you are, rather than your volume.
3. You Use Your Behavior And Body Language To Show That You’re Upset
Sometimes we do this subconsciously; sometimes we’re fully aware we’re being a jerk. Instead of directly telling your partner that you’re annoyed with them, you communicate it indirectly: responding in a brusque way when they ask a simple question, avoiding their touch, and being standoffish, or suddenly telling them you’re going out with the guys and ignoring their texts all night.
Like with raising your voice, passive-aggression is often a tool we reach for when we’re unable or unwilling to use healthier and more productive communication strategies. Sometimes there’s a touch of retaliation in there as well — we’re upset with our partner, so we sort of want them to be upset too.
And of course, this is ineffective for the very same reasons. By riling up our partner, it makes them all the less likely to be willing to address our concerns because now they’re as upset as you.
What to do instead: Catch yourself when you’re falling into a passive-aggressive state and nip it in the bud. The easiest way to do this is usually to go in the opposite direction — muster up the courage to seek closeness with your partner. Go up to them, wrap your arms around them, and let yourself mentally reconnect to the part of yourself that does love your partner and wants to be loving toward them. Then, directly tell them what’s bothering you.
4. You Think In Private For An Extended Time Before Speaking Up About An Issue
A man is concerned that the spark is fading between him and his partner, and he’s considering breaking up with them. He thinks for weeks and weeks before finally deciding to end things. His partner is caught completely off guard, as they had no idea he was unhappy in the relationship.
A married couple is planning to move to a new country because of one partner’s job. His wife isn’t so sure that she wants to move, but she goes along with it because her husband is so excited about it and she thinks maybe she’ll come around. Then, in the height of an argument about an unrelated topic, she blurts out that he should be more grateful to her considering that he’s “forcing her to move somewhere where she’s going to be miserable.” Her husband is stunned.
This is called lack of transparency, i.e., a failure to communicate. And people do it all the time. We’ll mull over a concern privately to ourselves, or we talk to our friends and family about it, but never say a word about it to our partner — until eventually the problem gets too large to ignore. People do this for a lot of reasons: Sometimes people have this idea that they need to be fully sure about how they feel or what they want to do about an issue before they bring it up. Or, they consciously choose to put off a tough conversation as long as possible because they don’t want to stir up drama. In other situations, we’re not comfortable enough with our emotions to name them out loud.
What to do instead: It’s okay to talk to your partner about doubts and concerns, even when you’re not fully sure about what you want, even if it’s potentially upsetting for your partner to learn about what you’re feeling, and even when there’s nothing really for your partner to do yet. Often, it’s helpful for your partner to know where you’re at. That way, they’re not caught off guard later when they learn that you’ve been unhappy about something for weeks. This not only gives them the opportunity to potentially meet your needs in a way you hadn’t realized they were capable of, but it also gives them the full truth of where you stand in the relationship — which is something they deserve to know, because it impacts them, too.
5. You Shut Down During Arguments
Ever get so angry or frustrated in an argument that you just shut down? You might close off, stop responding to your partner, shrug off their concerns with “whatever” or “forget, it’s nothing,” or move on to doing something else even when they’re still trying to talk to you.
This behavior is known as stonewalling, which is one of the so-called “four horsemen” that predict divorce, according to classic research by psychologist John Gottman, Ph.D.
Stonewalling is another form of communication breakdown. Essentially, you’ve become so activated and overwhelmed by emotion in the conversation that you move into a self-protective stance of disengaging, as a means of trying to protect yourself from the source of stress. The problem with this is that, of course, you’re still upset, and the issue has yet to be resolved — but you’re choosing to shut down communication instead of continuing through the difficult conversation and reaching a resolution.
What to do instead: It’s okay to take breaks during a heated conversation. Sometimes you really need it. But importantly, you need to come back. And, you need to tell your partner what’s going on and where you’re going, so they’re not left in the dark when they’re also in a moment of heightened emotion.
Try this one out: “Hey, I’m getting really heated right now, and I just need to cool off for a little bit. I love you, and I do want to keep discussing this with you and figure out how to resolve this. Can we break for 20 minutes and then come back?”
6. You Ignore Your Partner’s State Of Mind When You Bring Things Up
Communication is not a one-way street. You can’t just shout into the void and say you’ve done your part. Beyond expressing your point of view well, being a good communicator means making sure your message is received. That means it’s important to try to make sure your partner is in a position where they’re able to receive the information you’re trying to relay to them.
Part of this is about timing: For example, it’s probably not the ideal time to initiate a conversation about your sex life with your partner at the end of a hectic Saturday shuttling the kids to four different events, three of which they spent wailing at the top of their lungs.
The other part is about how you bring things up: If you bring up an issue in a harsh way (see #1 again) that triggers your partner’s fight-or-flight reflex, and suddenly they’re launched into an angry or defensive stance, that reactive state is going to make it much harder for them to hear you out.
If you notice your partner is activated or unable to engage with you, and you keep pushing them to listen to you, you may not be doing as great a job communicating as you might think.
What to do instead: Keep the handy “HALT” acronym in mind: hungry, angry, lonely, tired. These states can make it hard to receive information. (Ever had a partner try to start a serious conversation with you when you were starving? Ugh.)
When you’re trying to communicate something to your partner, consider whether they’re in any of these four states or any other state where it might be hard for them to be able to fully process what you’re saying. Before continuing the conversation, try to help them transition into a calmer, more receptive state of mind. If you notice they’ve been activated by what you’ve brought up, gently remind them that you love them and are not trying to attack them. Be mindful about starting conversations in a gentler way going forward, too.
The Bottom Line
Most of us will do one or more of the above behaviors from time to time, and that’s okay. What matters is that you learn to recognize when it’s happening, apologize to your partner as needed, and then try to move forward with a more open and productive communication strategy. Over time, we’ll start to do less of the dysfunctional stuff and move toward those healthier communication patterns more instinctively.