Alexandra Arcand, a 26-year-old writer based in Ohio, was in a state of pure bliss when she first met her boyfriend. But before long, the two couldn’t stop bickering about senseless things. “It didn’t take long after moving in together for us to seem like we were constantly at each other’s throats,” she said.
If you’re wondering how to fix communication in a relationship, you’re not alone. Countless couples, like Arcand and her boyfriend, have struggled with communication. In fact, poor communication is the No. 1 reason couples separate, contributing to about 65% of divorces.
Despite the ubiquity of couples who struggle in this area, effective communication is one of the most important components of a healthy, thriving partnership.
“Communication is the backbone of a relationship in many ways,” said Tracy Ross, a couples therapist based in New York City. “Connection is really the backbone, but communication is a huge part of your connection.”
Why is communication so important in relationships?
Communication is a crucial part of a healthy relationship because it’s impossible to build trust and intimacy if one or both partners can’t clearly communicate their feelings—what they want, need and desire.
Soon after Arcand realized that her and her boyfriend’s bickering was problematic, she saw a quote that changed the trajectory of their relationship. It said: “Just because you love someone the way you need to be loved doesn’t mean you’re loving them the way they need to be loved.”
After the couple chatted, they realized they weren’t loving each other the way the other person wanted. Arcand appreciated her boyfriend doing things without asking, like cleaning or picking up the groceries. For her boyfriend, physical and verbal affection were much more important. Once they were able to clear up this miscommunication, their relationship began flourishing.
At the end of the day, everyone wants to feel seen, accepted and understood in their relationship, Ross said.
“When you don’t feel seen or understood, you can get into fight-or-flight mode where you lash out to protect yourself—or you flee,” Ross said. “And that’s not good for anybody.”
Common communication mistakes
Communication problems are widespread because many people lack self-awareness about how deeply ingrained their habits are.
For example, Ross saw a couple in which the husband had trouble expressing his needs and desires, to the point where he couldn’t even tell his wife what he wanted for dinner. Through therapy, he realized that this stemmed from growing up in an environment in which he was shamed for asking for what he wanted.
“Our communication patterns are so automatic,” Ross said. “And they may be adaptive in other parts of our lives.”
Below are a handful of common communication mistakes in relationships:
Avoidance of vulnerability: Ross said people often struggle to be vulnerable. They might blame their partner for doing something wrong instead of asking for what they want. For example, someone who struggles with vulnerability might get mad at their partner for not buying them flowers on their birthday instead of telling their partner beforehand that they enjoy romantic gestures like flowers.
Fixation on needing to be right: Another common mistake couples make is focusing on who’s right rather than mending the problem at hand. Some couples will be so focused on proving who’s right that they lose sight of the real goal: understanding each other and figuring out where each other’s coming from, Ross said.
Focus on problem-solving instead of listening. This dynamic is common, Ross said: One partner will say they don’t feel heard because every time they vent, their partner offers up a solution, even though that’s not what they want.
“Problem-solving doesn’t make people feel heard,” Ross said. “How you make someone feel heard is by showing you get where they’re coming from—you have empathy.”
Although it seems simple, people often don’t grasp this concept until they meet with a couples therapist. “I tell a lot of people in therapy that they don’t need to offer up a solution, and it’s like a revelation to them,” Ross said.
Misguided attempt at connection. In some instances, poor communication stems from something simple: a desire to connect. “I think people who are feeling distance will choose a not-great communication mode to just get some action or energy back into the relationship,” Ross said. “It’s fear-based.”
There are numerous ways to identify whether the communication issues in your relationship warrant couples therapy, Ross said. If any of the following apply to you, you might want to consider meeting with a professional:
- You feel like you and your partner regularly go in circles over the same argument.
- You feel like 90% of the time, your relationship is great. But 10% of the time, you have nasty, volatile fights that take days to recover from.
- You’re avoiding talking about something with your partner because you’re afraid of how it will go.
- You feel distant from your partner.
- You feel like your relationship isn’t a priority for either of you.
How to solve communication problems in a relationship
When it comes to fixing communication in a relationship, it’s important to remember that each couple is different. However, these strategies will likely help every struggling partnership:
Accept each other’s differences. Ross said couples often struggle to truly accept that their partner has different feelings and viewpoints from them. “It can be a tension point when your partner doesn’t feel the same way you do about something,” Ross said.
The key to overcoming this hurdle is negotiating and accepting your differences. “How you talk about [differences] can be a huge predictor of what your relationship is like,” Ross said.
Let go of the idea that one partner is right. Ross said many couples come into therapy with the idea that the therapist will figure out who’s right, declare it and that will be the answer to their communication problems.
But in order to thrive, a couple needs to focus on improving their communication skills instead of dwelling over who’s “right.”
“I think a lot of couples struggle because they don’t know another way,” Ross said. “They get into being right or trying to prove their point, and that is not productive.”
Change the way you speak to one another. There are several strategies couples can use to foster healthier communication in relationships. Some include: avoiding “always/never” statements, using “I” instead of “you” statements, and using “what” questions instead of “why” questions.
Have a conversation. Make an attempt to truly connect with your partner through conversation. Put away your devices at night, and focus on having a deep conversation in which both partners are fully present.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if they seem basic—simply making small talk about the weather or a new album you discovered can help you emotionally connect with your partner.
Be willing to assess your shortcomings. In the example above from Ross, her client realized he struggled to ask for what he wanted because he was rejected whenever he did it as a child.
It’s important to be willing to look closely at your childhood and the communication styles you were taught as a kid. Many of us aren’t aware that poor communication styles we were taught as children can carry into adulthood.
Listen, listen, listen. It sounds simple, but healthy communication in relationships boils down to one thing: effective listening. This involves not planning your response while your partner is speaking and not interrupting them to say why they’re wrong, Ross said.
“It’s when you’re listening to really understand where they’re coming from,” Ross said. “And when you really listen to someone that way, they can feel it and they let down their guard.”
How to maintain healthy communication in relationships
Luckily, most communication issues in relationships can be fixed with a little time and effort.
“If you’re willing to be curious about each other and not assume that you know everything about your partner and what motivates them or what they really want—and you’re able to lay down your battle arms—then absolutely people can learn to communicate differently,” Ross said.
Once Arcand and her boyfriend took a step back and realized why they were struggling to communicate, their relationship began to blossom. “We had regular conversations making sure the other person was getting their love the way they needed,” she said. “We opened up about our feelings and what we didn’t like that the other did.”
To this day, Arcand said they make an effort to prioritize healthy communication.
“We still openly talk about things that are bothering us, ways we need to be loved and what we can improve on,” she said. “We both know we’re not perfect, and our relationship will never be either. But we both take the responsibility of working on it each and every day, and making strides toward understanding each other better.”
Although most communication issues can be fixed, there are some instances in which couples might struggle to figure out how to fix communication in a relationship. For example, Ross said, if someone isn’t willing to make their partner a priority (which boils down to talking and spending time together), the relationship could suffer.
A partnership might also struggle to survive if one or both partners is super rigid and unwilling to look at their contribution to the communication problem. “Both people have to show up,” Ross said. “It’s a two-person thing.”
Talk is cheap, but it’s also priceless
All relationships require work—even the ones that seem perfect on the surface.
“Research shows that if you don’t do anything, your relationship will get worse,” Ross said. “It’s a myth that if you have a great relationship, it’s just going to stay great without any time, attention or effort.”
If you’ve put in the work and you still feel like your relationship is struggling, it could be time to cut ties. Ending toxic relationships is never easy, but it’s an important step toward prioritizing your mental health.