Communication in Intimate Relationships

There are many names for relationship counselling – couples counselling, couples therapy, marriage counselling, relationship therapy – but fundamentally, they refer to the same thing. Two people who are in a significant relationship feel the need or desire to improve it.

One common experience is the need for better communication. Oftentimes, clients will present with statements such as:

“Whenever we talk, we end up arguing”

“I’ve stopped telling her things because she over-reacts to everything I say”

“He just doesn’t listen to me anymore”

“We’re like flatmates – we don’t feel close at all. We barely talk to one-another”.

When you look at the communication process, in technical detail, it is a wonder that human beings are able to communicate with one-another at all!

The process involves one person sending a message that needs to be encoded by the other person, with both person’s perception and the environment and other interferences impacting on the way in which the message is sent and received. Additionally, communication barriers get in the way. These ‘roadblocks’ are responses that impact negatively on communication causing one person or the other to withdraw, become defensive or resistant.

Humanist Psychologist, Thomas Gordon, has referred to these as ‘the dirty dozen’ of communication spoilers. These include:

Criticizing: making a negative evaluation of the other person, their attitudes or actions. Eg: “You don’t help yourself”, “You always do that”, “I can’t believe you’re still going on about that”.

Name-calling: putting someone down, stereo-typing or pigeon-holing someone. Eg: “You lazy slob”, “Don’t be so dumb”, “She’s such a bimbo”.

Diagnosing: analysing why someone is behaving in a certain way, playing amateur psychologist. Eg: “You’re so passive-aggressive”, “I can read you like a book”, “I know why you’re doing this”.

Praising evaluatively: making a positive judgement on the other person (often makes one feel manipulated) Eg: “You’re always good at fixing things”, “I know you’ll do your best”.

Ordering: commanding the other person to do what you want them to do. Eg: “Call him for dinner now”, “Take the garbage out like I asked”, “Make sure you do it properly”

Threatening: trying to control the other person’s actions by warning of negative consequences. Eg: “If you don’t clean the kitchen, I just won’t bother cooking”.

Moralising: telling the other person what they should do, preaching at the other person. Eg: “You should say you’re sorry”, “You need to tell her she can’t speak to you that way”.

Excessive questioning: closed-ended questions that lead to a one word answer as opposed to opening up the conversation. Eg: “Did you get it done?”, “When did it happen”, “Are you sorry you went there?”

Advising: giving the other person a solution to their problems as opposed to simply listening. Eg: “If I were you I’d…”, “Why don’t you just tell him off”, “You need to put it on the line”.

Diverting: pushing the other’s problems aside by using distraction. Eg: “Let’s just have a drink and forget about it”, “Can we talk about something more pleasant?”, “Anyway, what else did you do today?”

Logical argument: attempting to convince the other person with an appeal to the facts or by using logic, usually without reference to the emotional factors involved. Eg: “Let’s face the facts, if you didn’t get your nails done every week, we could put that money towards saving for a holiday”.

Reassuring: trying to stop the other person from feeling negative emotions. Eg: “Don’t worry, we always pull through”, “Things often get worse before they get better”,” Nevermind, tomorrow’s a new day!”

Commonly, the above modes of communication act to stop the conversation in one way or another. Oftentimes, they invalidate what the other person is thinking or feeling and shuts down the conversation. These points are a great conversation starter for any couple who wish to improve their relationship and increase the quality of their connection. Reflecting on these ‘communication spoilers’ can allow the couple to broach issues of how each-other communicates in a non-threatening way.

At the end of the day, we all fall into habits of using many of the above barriers to communication. However, the first step towards positive change is awareness, the next is action!

An effective method of getting your message across is to use the X,Y,Z of communication.

X = the trigger or event

Y = how you feel about it

Z = the outcome or behaviour

Here’s an example: “When you take a phonecall in the middle of our dinner date (X), I feel rejected (Y), and I withdraw and go into myself (Z)”.

This method of communication identifies the trigger, how you feel and respond to it, and the behaviour or outcome that ensues. It avoids judging, blaming, moralising or criticising the other person (eg:” It’s so rude to take a phonecall in the middle of dinner”) and enables the message to be communicated in a clear and non-threatening way.



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