Healthy relationships are not easy, they take work. Many couples have been struggling more lately because of COVID. Couples are spending a lot more time together; they have fewer social and physical outlets available to them; they are managing work and home life in a new way; there are financial issues, and so much more. One goal often expressed by couples is the desire to improve communication.
There are a number of things that couples can do to improve communication. The first step is to become aware of and build an understanding of the different styles of communication. There are four different styles of communication: assertive, passive, passive aggressive, and aggressive.
Individuals who have a passive communication style tend to avoid expressing their feelings, opinions, and needs. They fail to assert themselves and have poor boundaries within their relationships. Often people with this type of communication style will keep things inside until it builds up and they “explode”. Afterwards, the passive communicator may feel guilty or apologetic and return to the previous passive pattern of keeping things to themselves.
Those who have an aggressive communication style tend to speak in a louder tone, interrupt often, criticize, blame and humiliate their partner, and dominate or control their partner. A person with this type of communication style values their own needs over the needs of their partners.
Individuals who have a passive-aggressive communication style attempt to make their partner aware of their needs in an indirect way. They may appear to be passive, but in reality they are more concerned with their own needs. They often feel powerless and resentful and act out their anger in subtle ways including rolling their eyes, muttering to themselves, using sarcasm, or denying there is even a problem.
Individuals who have an assertive communication style can clearly advocate and identify their needs and feelings without disrespecting the needs and feelings of their partner and they value their own needs as well as the needs of their partner. They use a calm and clear tone of voice, they listen well without interrupting their partner, they respect others boundaries while ensuring others respect theirs, and they have a good sense of self control. People with assertive communication are more connected to others and have a good sense of control over their lives.
The style of communication we adopt is influenced by relationships we have, our attachment style, the way others around us communicate, whether or not they have experienced abuse or trauma, their culture, and many other factors. Having a partner with a communication style that is different than yours is quite common and not necessarily a bad thing. Not all communication styles are healthy and some combinations of styles can be especially unhealthy, for example, if one partner is passive and the other is aggressive, the needs of the passive partner will rarely be met. A healthy relationship requires the needs of both partners to be heard, expressed, respected, and met.
There are a number of steps that can be taken to improve communication. Here are a few:
- Become aware of your own communication style as well as your partner’s communication style.
- Familiarize yourself with the characteristics of each style.
- Recognize you and your partner’s differences and work together to integrate assertive communication skills.
- Ensure the needs of both partners are being respected.
- Encourage your partner to share and take or provide space when needed.
- Take turns when talking and listen with the intent of learning and understanding, not responding, or defending yourself.
- Ensure you are sharing your needs and feelings in a respectful way: use “I” statements and not “you” statements.
- Pay attention to non-verbal cues and do not assume or make your partner guess.
- And most importantly, remember you love each other.
Improved communication can have a number of positive implications not only in relationships, but in other areas of our lives as well. It can help you navigate difficult conversations, express your opinions, and to connect more deeply and meaningfully with others. Adopting healthy communication techniques and dropping the unhealthy techniques is not an easy task; the patterns we have adopted are often long standing. Take things one step at a time and be patient with yourself and your partner. Each step forward is a step in the right direction.
Amy Shaw, MSW, RSW
B. Skinner Coaching & Psychotherapy