How Bad Communication Can Spoil a Good Relationship
By Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott
Gracious words are a honeycomb,
sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.
(Proverbs 16:24, NIV)
It’s date night. After a week of juggling schedules, wrestling traffic, paying bills, and all the rest, the two of you are headed out for a meal together, just the two of you. Or maybe you’re going to unwind with conversation over a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Whatever the plan, you both finally sit down to (drumroll) converse. It’s your chance to connect, chat, discuss, catch up.
“So how was your day?” you ask your husband.
“Good. It was good.”
“Same old stuff, really. Nothing new.”
“Isn’t it great to finally have some time to ourselves?” you say, undaunted by the false start to what is certain to be a meaningful heart-to-heart conversation.
“Yeah,” he says as he looks around the restaurant.
“You seem distracted.”
“No. Not at all. I just wondered if the game was over and who won.”
“Okaaaaay,” you say slowly, raising the pitch of your voice as you drag out the word.
He picks up on the message and attempts to turn it around. “It doesn’t really matter who won the game. Let’s talk.”
That’s when you look at each other blankly and wonder what you have to talk about. A plethora of words are primed and ready for a great exchange somewhere within your vocal cords, and yet nothing comes out. So you sip your coffee and wrack your brain for the start of a meaningful conversation.
If you didn’t already know, let’s put it on the table: The number one problem couples report is “a breakdown in communication.” And with good reason. Whether a relationship sinks or swims depends on how well partners send and receive messages, and how well they use their conversations to understand and be understood. Think about it. If you are feeling especially close to your partner, it is because you are communicating well. Your spirits are up. Your love life is full. You are in tune. And when communication falls flat, when you feel stuck and you’re talking in circles, relational satisfaction drops. Communication, more than any other aspect of your relationship, can either buoy relational intimacy or be the dead-weight, leading to its demise.
Time and again, we have seen faulty communication lines pull down an otherwise sturdy relationship: both partners struggle to convey what they want or need in the relationship, never realizing they are speaking a language the other does not comprehend. Feeling disappointed, the partners erect defenses against each other, becoming guarded. They stop confiding in each other, wall off parts of themselves, and withdraw emotionally from the relationship. They can’t talk without getting blamed, so they stop listening.
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of communication in any relationship, but especially marriage. Almost all couples (97%) who rate their communication with their partner as excellent are happily married, compared to only 56% who rate their communication as poor. The poll concluded: “In an era of increasingly fragile marriages, a couple’s ability to communicate is the single most important contributor to a stable and satisfying marriage.”
Love relationships maintain themselves linguistically: when we talk to our partner, we search for signs of love but become attuned to signs of disapproval. After all, our relationship is the peg on which we hang our sense of who we are. In other words, our very identity is at stake when we are not feeling understood and loved by our partner. This is the crux of how bad communication spoils a good relationship. Little conversations, piled one on top of the other, can easily tip the scales toward feeling misunderstood—especially when we become attuned to any potential sign of disapproval.
Perhaps the most painful example of this dynamic is found in a message that combines caring with criticism.
“Do you really need another bowl of ice cream?” Olivia asks Michael as he fumbles around in the freezer.
“You bet I do,” he replies (as if to say, “If I wasn’t sure before, I certainly am now”). “Why do you always watch what I eat?”
“Because I love you,” she says with sincerity. “I’m just looking out for you.”
It’s a simple question about ice cream, right? Not exactly. While she is focused on helping him improve his diet, he is focused on being criticized for eating too much—and he ends up feeling judged, distant, and misunderstood.
Or consider how the same thing happens when the roles are reversed for this couple:
“The towels in our bathroom are overdue for a wash,” Michael observes.
Regardless of how it’s intended, what Olivia hears is “You aren’t doing a very good job of keeping this house clean.”
The impression of disapproval comes not from the message, the words spoken, but from Olivia’s attunement to disapproval. So the seemingly simple observation leads her to feel she can’t get approval from the person whose approval means the most.
So we’ll say it again: love relationships maintain themselves linguistically. But a mere exchange of information—no matter how well it is communicated—is not enough to keep a love relationship alive.
Adapted from Love Talk: Speak Each Other’s Language Like You Never Have Before by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott, now updated and expanded! Click here to learn more about this title.
Love Talk is like no other communication book you’ve ever read. The fruit of years of research by two foremost relationship experts (who also happen to be husband and wife), this book forges a new path to the heart of loving conversation. You’ll begin by identifying your security need and determining your personal communication style. Then you’ll put together everything you discover to learn how the two of you can speak each other’s language like never before.
This very day, you can begin an adventure in communication that will draw the two of you closer, and closer, and closer … consistently, in a way that creates the depth and connection you long for in your relationship.
Love Talk includes:
- The all-new Deep Love Assessment
- The secret to emotional connection
- When not to talk
- A Communications 101 primer
- Practical help for the “silent partner”
Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott are #1 New York Times bestselling authors and founders of the revolutionary Deep Love Assessment. Their bestselling books include Crazy Good Sex, The Good Fight, Love Like That, and the award-winning Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts. They have appeared on CNN, Today Show, Good Morning America, The View, and Oprah. They live with their two sons in Seattle. Visit www.LesandLeslie.com to learn more.
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