It’s no secret that communication can make or break a relationship. Good communication can foster trust, intimacy, and closeness with your partner, and help you navigate conflict better. Bad communication in a relationship, however, can take a serious toll.
“Poor communication can lead partners to ultimately distance from one another because they’re likely to become disengaged over time,” explains Dr. Jacqui Gabb, professor of sociology and intimacy at The Open University and Chief Relationships Officer at Paired. “If communication is poor over time, one or both partners may give up trying.”
But while we’re constantly told that communication is key, few of us are taught how to practice good communication skills — let alone how to deal with a bad communicator in a relationship.
If you’re stuck in a cycle of poor communication with your partner, or if you’re trying to get your partner to communicate to no avail, keep scrolling for some expert tips.
Before trying to fix your partner’s poor communication, it’s important to identify some common communication pitfalls.
American psychologist and relationship expert Dr. John Gottman believes there are four communication styles that, according to research, might predict the end of a relationship — he calls these the Four Horsemen. These are:
Dr. Gabb adds that not listening to your partner, using generalized statements that escalate conflict (such as “always/never” statements), and yelling are other common signs of bad communication.
Poor communication can occur for many reasons. Sometimes the issue is just temporary — maybe your partner is going through a stressful time — but other times they can have deep-rooted causes.
“Poor communication skills can stem from unhelpful role models,” Dr. Gabb explains. “If a partner has grown up in a household where shouting is commonplace they may take this into their couple relationship, even when they experienced it negatively in the past.”
Bad communication in a relationship can also happen when “work mode” spills into home and love life. “For example, speaking to a partner as you would someone at work — less caring, authoritative perhaps, even rude,” Dr. Gabb says.
“It can also be related to poor mental health, for example when someone withdraws into themselves and stops engaging with the world and their partner. It can also be a temporary hitch (although this may become an ingrained pattern) that stems from being tired, for example, when you’re adjusting to life as new parents or overworking.”
“It’s important to remember that good communication is a skill, just like any other, so all couples are likely to need to work on this aspect of their relationship,” says Dr. Gabb. As long as you’re willing to put the work in as a couple, you can overcome your communication problems. So, what should you do if your partner is bad at communicating?
Dr. Gabb explains that good communication in a relationship is a two-way street. “For the person who experiences their partner’s poor communication, it can feel negating and a rejection of them and they may take it personally. The partner who has poor communication skills may want to talk about why they’re feeling shut down, but believes their partner is disinterested in listening to them talk about it. So it’s about both partners working at keeping channels of communication open and effective.”
That’s why she recommends starting with some self-awareness. “How do you communicate? A partner’s poor communication may be a response to your communication style,” says Dr. Gabb.
“Most people don’t think about how they’re communicating, they just do it. If you’re an over-talker then make an effort to break the habit and if you do it, apologize. If a partner is an inveterate stonewaller, explain how this makes you feel. Remember that your communication style may be simply different from your partner's. Neither one may be right nor wrong, good or bad. It’s about working together to find a compromise that works for both.”
Dr. Gabb shares some tips on how to help your partner be a better communicator in a relationship:
Make time to talk about talking
Explain why you’re experiencing poor communication as an issue and how it’s making you feel
Make some positive suggestions for what would feel better
Practice active listening
Begin with “I feel” statements
But Dr. Gabb reminds us what not to do when trying to get a partner to communicate. “Don’t corner them. Ask them when they have time and will feel able to talk rather than bounce them into a conversation,” she says.
If you’re anxious about having a face-to-face talk, Dr. Gabb recommends taking the conversation outside, away from any confrontational settings, or changing up your body language setup, such as sitting opposite one another to open up eye contact.
“Walking and talking is often a good place to start. Holding hands as you walk can communicate volumes and can lead into a deeper level of comms because you feel connected.”
At the end of the day, communication is a skill that requires constant practice and there will always be room for improvement. In cases where you don’t see any improvement, it might be worth consulting a couple’s therapist.
“If a partner feels they just can’t budge the needle and improve communication, if the communication feels destructive (to one or other partner and the relationship), or there’s consistent shouting in anger and disparaging and disrespectful comments or tone, then the couple may need to seek outside help,” says Dr. Gabb.
Download Paired for more expert tips on how to communicate better in a relationship written by leading academics and therapists.