Warning Signs of Bad Communication in a Relationship

10 Warning Signs of Bad Communication in a Relationship

Bad communication is a recipe for misery. Being on the receiving poor communication is confusing at best. And it’s emotionally painful at worst. Communicating poorly is a recipe for disaster because it decreases your chances of being heard. Worse yet is when both partners lack healthy communication skills. This creates a perfect storm. In this post, we provide ten bad communication examples. Each demonstrates a warning sign of negative communication. This is followed by effective communication tips. Finally, we share ideas on how to communicate better.

How Bad Communication Hurts Couples

Comedian Bonnie McFarlane says, “I once gave my husband the silent treatment for an entire week, at the end of which he declared, “Hey, we’re getting along pretty great lately!” If only improving communication was this easy. We’ll soon see that poor communication—including the silent treatment—is painful.

Why is communication so hard?

If you’ve ever wondered Why is communication is so hard? you’re not alone. According to Psychology Today, communication problems are the top reason couples seek therapy. Two of the biggest communication difficulties are a “lack of understanding” and not “discussing problems.”

It’s obvious that communication is hard. But why?

Warning Bad Communication Hurts
Warning: Bad communication hurts! And isolating yourself from your loved one is hazardous to your physical and mental health.

One study suggests that communication is hard because social rejection hurts. According to this 2003 study, social exclusion causes the anterior cingulate—or the brain’s pain center—to light up. This study concludes, “The brain bases of social pain are similar to those of physical pain.” In other words, the brain reacts to social rejection the same way it reacts to physical pain. This is especially true when the person rejecting us is the one we care about most.

If you aren’t convinced, just ask any of the thousands of people who type, “Is silent treatment abuse?” into search engines each month. Also, let’s not forget that solitary confinement is our prison system’s harshest form of punishment. When I share the idea of emotional disconnection as being painful, couples always nod in agreement. They often say, “If I could choose between smashing my finger and being disconnected from my spouse, I’d pick the physical pain every time.”

The band Nazareth almost got it right in their 1976 hit song Love Hurts. Although, it’s not actually love that hurts. Instead, it’s being disconnected from someone we long to be close to that causes mental anguish.

Poor communication can be hazardous to your health.

Another study found that loneliness does as much damage to our physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And marital distress increases the risk of depression tenfold. Relationships are serious business. So serious that perhaps they should come with a Surgeon General’s warning that reads: Warning: Disconnecting from your loved one is hazardous to your health.

So why is communication important? Good communication matters because poor communication hurts. Let’s break this down. Partners argue. If the issue is not resolved, they isolate or emotionally disconnect. This causes the brain’s pain center to activate. Thus, bad communication in relationships hurts!

What causes bad communication?

I’m just a bad communicator. If you’ve ever thought this, you’re not alone. But bad communication doesn’t only stem from a lack of communication skills. There is much more happening. When couples argue, one or both partners may become emotionally flooded. Flooded is a term used by relationship expert John Gottman. And the imagery is appropriate. The body’s system gets flooded with adrenalin and cortisol (the stress hormone), which results in a cascade of physiological changes.

A few of them include the frontal cortex (or critical thinking part of the brain) deactivating. Next, the amygdala (or the brain’s emergency response system) turns on. If you’ve ever thought My loved one has lost his mind, you may be right. These changes in the brain make logical thinking nearly impossible. Here’s an image of what flooding looks like.

Poor Communication Skills and Flooding

Healthy communication tools are not enough. In the infographic above, the yellow dot on the brain highlights the amygdala. The yellow curved line shows the approximate location of the anterior cingulate. A couple can have all of the communication skills in the world. However, the moment they are flooded, that couple will forget them all. To avoid bad communication, it’s vital to recognize the signs of emotional flooding and manage them well.

10 Warning Signs of Bad Communication in a Relationship

Bad communication is no joke. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the lighter side of life. Each bad communication warning sign starts with a marriage joke that contains a kernel of truth. Perhaps you can relate. Next comes an effective communication strategy. This is followed by a specific skill for communicating better.

Here are 10 warning signs of bad communication in a relationship. Use this list to replace poor communication with healthy communication skills.

1. Repeating Yourself

Bad Communication Example: Why do wives use twice as many words as their husbands? Because they always have to repeat themselves.
Effective Communication Strategy: When someone repeats themselves, it signals they are not feeling heard. Likely, one or both of you are flooded, and poor communication is already taking place.
How to Communicate Better: Slow the conversation down. Listen first. Get curious. And begin problem-solving only after you fully understand your partner’s point of view.

2. Rejecting Influence

Bad Communication Example: If you want to change the world, do it while you’re single. Once you’re married, you can’t even change the television channel.
Effective Communication Strategy: Happy, stable couples accept influence. Rejecting your loved one’s influence is a sure sign of unhealthy communication. And emotional flooding occurs when partners are unwilling to give an inch.
How to Communicate Better: Pause the conversation. After a break, look for areas of agreement. Can the two of you find a middle road? Ask, How can I take one step closer to my partner’s point of view? To communicate better, accept your partner’s influence. Negotiate with your partner like you would negotiate with someone you love.

3. Increased Vulnerabilities

Healthy Communication Advice: Treat vulnerabilities first.

Bad Communication Example: My husband and I have agreed to never go to bed angry with each other. So far, we’ve been up for three days.
Effective Communication Strategy: Lack of sleep, poor diet, physical illness, and mood-altering substances all increase the likelihood of bad communication in relationships. While these are not signs of being emotionally flooded, they are vulnerabilities that increase the likelihood of flooding.
How to Communicate Better: To communicate more effectively, treat vulnerabilities first. Then, return to the conversation. It’s amazing how much better communication gets after a good night’s sleep.

4. Agreeing to Appease

Bad Communication Example: I play the world’s most dangerous sport. I disagree with my wife.
Effective Communication Strategy: Healthy communication requires physical and emotional safety. If disagreeing with your spouse feels like playing “the world’s most dangerous sport,” your partner may concede just to appease you. Agreeing to appease can be a sign of emotional flooding. Likely, the appeaser is in flight mode. Not only is this poor communication, but it also solves little in the long run.
How to Communicate Better: Find a win-win solution. If your partner verbally agrees but resents you, the solution will ultimately make the problem worse. Instead of fighting for your position, communicate better by insisting the final solution is good for you both.

5. Bringing up the Past

Bad Communication Example: Husband: “When I argue with my wife, she always gets historical.” Friend: “Don’t you mean hysterical?” Husband: “No, I mean historical. She brings up every mistake I ever made.”
Effective Communication Strategy: Healthy communicators focus on the problem. Assume that your loved one is not the problem. Instead, the problem is the problem. Revisiting old hurts will only increase your partner’s defensiveness. Couples bring up the past to try to prove their point. But it actually decreases their odds of being heard.
How to Communicate Better: Isolate the problem and name it. So what is the problem exactly? If your spouse is coming home late, the problem is lateness. If your house is a mess, don’t complain about how lazy your loved one is. Call the problem “a messy home.” To communicate better, isolate the problem. Name it. Then, team up to fix what’s wrong. Instead of getting historical, get your loved one on your side. After all, you and your spouse are on the same team!

6. Getting Stuck in a Negative Perspective

Bad Communication Example: I can remember when I got married. I can remember where I got married. But for the life of me, I can’t remember why I got married.
Effective Communication Strategy: No couple views their relationship exactly as it is. Couples are either in a positive relationship perspective or a negative one. For those with a negative perspective, problems appear bigger than they are. A couple with a negative perspective is more likely to perceive neutral comments as a personal attack. This decreases the odds of effective communication and increases the likelihood that emotional flooding will occur.
How to Communicate Better: To get into the positive perspective, strengthen your friendship with your spouse. Do the types of things that best friends do. If you’re not sure how to accomplish this, check out our list of activities happy couples do here.

How to communicate better
Healthy Communication Advice: To avoid the poor communication that comes with a negative perspective, strengthen your friendship.

7. Interrupting

Bad Communication Example: When we were arguing, my spouse said I was rude for yawning. I said, “I wasn’t yawning. I thought it was my turn to speak.”
Effective Communication Strategy: Interrupting also signals one or both of you don’t feel heard. You may already be flooded. And if not, interrupting increases the chances flooding will occur.
How to Communicate Better: Choose one person to speak first. If you’re the listener, put problem-solving on hold. Seek to understand first. Draw your loved one out. Ask good questions. Then, look for areas of agreement and find at least one thing your partner said to validate. Validating your loved one doesn’t necessarily mean you agree. Instead, it means that what he or she says makes sense. Then switch roles.

8. Threatening Divorce

Bad Communication Example: What do a wife and a grenade have in common? They both leave you hurt when they pull off the ring.
Effective Communication Strategy: Divorce is the real d-word. When divorce is brought up in an argument, it’s an obvious low blow. A partner who threatens divorce is probably not feeling heard. Unfortunately, this threat will also kick your loved one’s nervous system into overdrive and make it even less likely your loved one will hear what you have to say. After the word divorce is mentioned, effective communication is nearly impossible.
How to Communicate Better: Plan ahead. Agree that threatening divorce during an argument is never allowed. If the d-word is dropped, stop the conversation immediately. Take a break separately. Reset for 20-minutes or more. Then return to the conversation.

9. Over Apologizing

Bad Communication Example: When my wife and I argue, I always get the last word. They’re usually, “I’m sorry. You’re right.”
Effective Communication Strategy: When emotionally flooded, it’s tempting to apologize just to end the fight. This probably means you’re in flight mode. Obviously, this is not healthy communication. A quick, insincere apology won’t solve the problem. In healthy communication, couples take time to evaluate what happened before they apologize.
How to Communicate Better: Apologize fast. Just not too fast, and don’t overdo it. Consider the following:

  1. Apologize only after you fully understand what you are sorry for. If you don’t understand, get clarity by asking good questions.
  2. Avoid apologizing if it’s not sincere. Don’t say “I’m sorry” just to get your partner’s tears or anger to stop.
  3. Apologize only if you intend to change. A quick “I’m sorry” followed by repeating the offense will make the problem worse.

10. Criticism and Contempt

Bad Communication Example: I asked my wife which she liked better, my face or my body? She said, “Your sense of humor.”
Effective Communication Strategy: Criticizing your loved one’s character is poor communication. So is showing contempt through a look of disdain (such as eye-rolls and sneers). In fact, 20 years of relationship research reveals that “The single, best predictor of divorce is when one or both partners show contempt in the relationship.” It’s important to be aware that using sharp humor to attack can also be a sign of contempt and can trigger emotional flooding. The irony is couples often use these poor communication strategies when they want to be heard. But couples fail to realize that when their loved one is seeing red, the odds of being heard are greatly reduced.
How to Communicate Better: Good communicators start softly. The best way to do this is to share how you feel. Perhaps you feel sad, disappointed, or frustrated. Your feelings are your feelings. Share what’s happening inside of you. While you and your loved one may disagree on the details, arguing about individual feelings is nearly impossible. For more effective communication, try this formula: “When you ____________, I feel _____________. In the future, I’d like ___________ .” Be sure to share what you do want. Avoid what you don’t want. For example, you might say, “When you come home late, I feel lonely and miss you. In the future, I’d like you to text me if you’re running behind.”

How to Communicate Effectively in a Relationship

Effective communication requires both parties have their prefrontal cortex activated. Picture the prefrontal cortex and amygdala as connected by a light switch. When one turns on, the other turns off. John Flanagan describes no less than 12 physiological changes in the human body once emotional flooding occurs. As we have seen, when flooded, effective communication is impossible.

The number one way to avoid bad communication in a relationship is to prevent emotional flooding. Relationship researcher John Gottman says, “the average person needs 20-minutes for their body to reset after they become flooded.” If you think you’re calm a few minutes after a blow-up, think again. Physiologically speaking, you’re not. So instead of continuing the conversation, insist on taking a break. This pause is not to avoid but to reset. It may help ease your partner’s fears if you set an agreed-upon time to return to the conversation. This time, start softly.

Conversations typically end similarly to how they begin. An astounding 96 percent of couples who started a conversation harshly continued to spiral downward. Only 4 percent of couples turned things around. These are terrible odds. So if your communication starts badly, take a break. Reset. Then try again. This is what healthy communicators do!

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Jed Jurchenko

Jed Jurchenko is the husband to an incredible wife, daddy to four amazing girls, and a foster dad to one more. He's served as a children's pastor, marriage and family therapist, psychology professor, award-winning writing coach, and life coach. Jed is the author of 23 books on relationships, parenting, writing, and doing life well. In his free time, you'll find Jed reading, preparing for an upcoming marathon, barbecuing, paddle boarding, and enjoying life with his incredible family. Find out more about Jed's books, coaching, and courses at www.ithrive320.com.