Have you ever watched a couple who so clearly didn’t get along, listened to their conversation, and wanted to scream because there were so many ways you would have handled that conversation differently? You could easily show them a play-by-play of where they went wrong, who could have said what differently, or who should have said anything at all at one point. It seems so obvious to you where this couple is going wrong. We probably all know couples like that. We don’t understand how they get to that place. Maybe you’re in such a couple. I used to be an assistant to a married woman who had very unfortunate communication with her husband. I’d hear it all, because she’d answer his calls on speakerphone when we were driving around together. The calls would go something like this: the phone would ring. She’d answer, say “What?” He’d say “You’re going to greet me like that?” She’d say, “I’m busy, I’m driving.” He’d say, “Never mind we’ll talk later.” She’d demand he just say it now. Whatever it was. He’d say whatever it was (do we need more wine from the store? Are we going to the Parker’s baby shower?). She’d chastise him for calling about it, when it could have been a text. Woooaaah. It was all so sad. How did they get to this place? But it happens to couples all of the time. Really. It just happens slowly, and you have to pay close attention in order to prevent it. Here are reasons communication breaks down in a relationship.
Not giving full attention
When your partner tries to tell you something, but you’re preoccupied, you attempt to multi-task, halfway listening to your partner’s story, but halfway distracted by your other task. Nobody likes to feel only partially heard. This has a way of making your partner feel that his stories aren’t important or interesting to you. You’re busy, and want to try to get everything done at once – sending that email, and listening to your partner. But it doesn’t work.
Just schedule a time to pay attention
Simply say to your partner, “You know what, I’m just wrapping something up, can we talk in ten minutes when I can give you my full attention? I don’t want to only halfway listen. But I do need to finish this thing real quick.” This shows your partner that what he has to say actually does matter – it matters so much that you want to wait to hear it until you can be fully present.
You fall behind on catch-ups
You may have lots that you want to share with your partner – things that happen in your life – but, by the time you actually make the time to have a proper date night, 15 more things have happened, pushing those original things back, making you feel like, “Well, forget telling him that stuff, that’s in the past now.” Suddenly, you start to realize there is so much you don’t know about each other’s lives. You aren’t all caught up. You can struggle to empathize with each other or feel connected if you’re missing out on days’ or weeks’ worth of catch-ups.
Prioritize regular quality time together
You just have to prioritize regular, quality time together so you can stay caught up. However you can do it, do it. If it means going to bed just 15 minutes later so you can give one another the run-down on your days, do it. If it means skipping your workout class once a week to have dinner with your partner instead, do it. You don’t want to tune back into his life to find he’s on chapter 34 and you missed chapters 28 through 33.
We use an accusatory tone
It happens to so many couples: you start using an accusatory tone for some reason. When your partner does something that bothers you, like forgets to empty the dishwasher, or doesn’t make the bed – whatever it is – you assume he did it to bother you. Or you assume he did it purposefully out of disrespect. Immediately, you take on that tone, condemning him. And nobody wants to talk to somebody who speaks to them with that tone. So he shuts down.
You don’t know the intentions
Try to approach every conflict with your partner with this understanding: I do not know my partner’s intentions. You don’t. Never assume the reason someone did something. That’s when that nasty tone comes out. And nobody likes to feel accused of thoughts or intentions. Actions? Okay. But not intentions. It doesn’t give them the benefit of the doubt. Keep your tone neutral. Or, simply ask, gently, why the person did what they did.
We use a condescending tone
There can also be a condescending tone. We start to talk to our partners like they are our children. It can be a familiarity breeds contempt thing. You live with your partner so, it’s him who wakes you up by talking too loudly on the phone or it’s him who eats the avocados, not knowing they were meant for the guac you were taking to a BBQ. It can start to feel that, when something goes wrong, he’s the cause of it, and you speak to him accordingly.
Don’t talk to your partner like that
Do try to remember that, any person you chose to spend your life with is someone with whom you’d eventually blend your life. Meaning there is no man in the world you can shack up with who wouldn’t get under your skin a bit. To be in a relationship is to remember, “Having this love in my life is so much better than not having it and…having those avocados still there.” It sounds silly, but you can see how there are many opportunities for this shift in perspective.
Asking directly stops working
Maybe you get tired of repeating yourself. You’ve asked your partner five times to empty the dishwasher in the morning, because you do it in the evenings. But you wake up, and it’s full, and he’s just at the gym or on the phone. You don’t know what to do other than ask. So you…
So you try manipulation tactics
When we feel that simply asking isn’t getting results, we can start using manipulation tactics. Maybe you stop doing some of your chores, to show your partner how it feels when he finds the gas tank in the car empty just when he needs it or the trash can left overflowing, not thrown out. You take on a, “I’ll show you” mentality.
Manipulation breaks down the trust
Once the manipulation starts, the trust breaks down. What your partner did (or didn’t do) was an accident. It was an annoying one that he kept repeating, but an accident nonetheless. What you did in retaliation was done on purpose. In other words, it was done with contempt. You just wanted to get results, but what your partner sees is somebody who wanted to upset him. How can he trust that person? Why would he open up to that person?
Now, you’re so far from the original issue
At this point, you start fighting about how you fight, and not even about the original argument anymore. It’s a very ugly hat on top of another very ugly hat. You’ve lost sight of the real issues. And the blaming starts. “I did this because you did this.” “Well I did that because you did that.” It can feel like all hope is lost when you get to this place and you stop really talking to each other. You just don’t want to fight, so you don’t talk.
We stop trying to understand
Another thing that comes up when you live with someone and spend lots of time with them is that you get tired of really listening and relating. Hey, let’s be honest, listening – I mean real listening – is hard work. It’s part of the hard work that pays off in a meaningful connection. But it is hard work. And sometimes, we get tired. We stop really trying to sympathize with our partners and feel their feelings. We just nod and say, “Oh. Nice” or “Uh-huh.” We get the credit of technically listening, but we aren’t participating in the conversation.
So we stop sharing
When we feel our partner stops really trying to relate to us or take an interest in our stories, we stop sharing. Why wouldn’t we? It feels so irritating to open up to somebody who doesn’t try to understand you. So, instead of telling your partner the long story about a fight with a coworker, when he asks how work was you say, “Fine. Some stuff happened, but it’s fine.”
We find others to open up to
Many couples resort to this thinking: I don’t need to share everything with my partner because I have other people I can talk to. Though that is true, you should want to share with your partner. If you don’t then…who even is he in your life anymore? When you start trying to outsource the friendship to others, because you don’t get it at home, you quickly feel a million miles away from your partner.