Problematic Styles of Communication in Relationships

These are the most common issues that couples present in therapy.

Posted Oct 24, 2019

Most couples who present for counseling complain of poor communication. In fact, that's often all they report.

Fostering clear communication has long been one of the goals of most marriage and family therapists (Gottman, 2015; Guerney, 1977; Haley, 1991; Satir, 1988; Watzlawick, Beavin, & Jackson, 1967). In my years of conducting couples work, I have noticed at least eight distinct communicational styles that often cause relational problems:

  1. Passive-aggressive — This partner keeps thoughts and feelings inside only to retaliate in a passively destructive manner. Most of the time the passive-aggressive partner is unaware of personal feelings and behavior. For example, Tara wanted to take in a movie that Jim did not want to see. Rather than express his preference to Tara he procrastinated, and the couple missed the movie. Although Tara was furious with Jim, rather than take responsibility for his behavior, Jim resented his wife’s response and refused to explain himself.
  2. Screamer — This partner may make sense, but the communicational delivery is so offensive it is difficult to focus on the content of the message. Because Sam grew up in a family of screamers, whenever he would perceive a sense of injustice he would yell rather than talk things out. His wife Joyce found her husband’s style intimidating and offensive. In response, she would retreat… that is until she left him for good.
  3. Histrionic — This type of partner overdramatizes most of what is being communicated and as the focus of the interaction eventually turns to the hysterics rather than the content. Meaning, the corresponding partner must then focus on calming the histrionic partner down rather than problem-solving. Lisa was the life of the party: She was flamboyant in both her dress and her expression. Most people liked her and enjoyed being with her. In a word, she was “fun.” In her marriage, however, she managed to turn everything her husband John challenged her on into a potential divorce. This reaction enabled John to give up reporting even the smallest of annoyances.  
  4. Chronic Crier — This type of communicator often unconsciously plays the victim to prevent the corresponding partner from full expression. Jan cried anytime her partner Sara voiced displeasure in their relationship. Sara admitted that Jan’s crying made her feel too guilty to challenge her partner, but she did manage to find another mate who proved to be an easy listener.   
  5. Withholder/Exploder — This type of partner withholds feelings until they are ready to explode. This communicator might build anger over a long enough time to render the relationship irreparable. For example, Cynthia was angry with Ted having poker parties at their house and never cleaning up afterward. She also felt that she was treated like a maid in her marriage. Cynthia once referred to herself as a “modern-day Cinderella.” Rather than express these feelings however, Cynthia dutifully complied with Ted’s demands, until one day she asked for a divorce. Ted said he felt blindsided, but truth be told, he was not paying attention
  6. Conflicted — This partner’s messages may be so contradictory and convoluted that it is difficult to determine what they want. Patricia was so conflicted about caring for others versus meeting her own needs that she could rarely convey a definitive message. Her style led to frustration on her and her husband Kirk’s part. Kirk claimed that he would meet his wife’s needs if he could figure out what they were.
  7. Shunner — This individual tends to distance or shut down the way a turtle does when challenged. Partners vary as to how long they close off: some for days; others for several months. This partner is similar in style to the so-called “grudge holder.” Andrea was raised by a mother who would shun her for months if she failed to comply with her wishes. As a married woman, Andrea did the same to her husband Tom. Tom reported that the shunning was so potent that he was frightened of Andrea.     
  8. Anxiety-Ridden — A case could be made that anxiety underlies most of the preceding styles but in this category, I am referring to the overtly anxious individual who appears to have an anxiety attack when challenging messages are conveyed. The anxiety-ridden partner may cut you off mid-sentence and even run from the room; he or she may move to change the topic almost instantly to avoid confrontation. Joan reported that when growing up her parents lived in fear. “They were so overprotective I was barely allowed out of the house,” she said. Apparently, Joan’s parents were also conflict avoiders and perfectionistic. As a married woman, Joan was so afraid of confrontation, particularly with her husband Drew, that she would experience physical symptoms and run for a sedative whenever she perceived him to be displeased with her.          

Although these styles are prevalent in relationships, I have also experienced couples who claim poor communication even though they communicate quite clearly; these partners just don’t like what they are hearing. No matter how well the message is conveyed, it will not be processed in a positive, productive manner and the relational dynamic soon morphs into a control struggle between partners.

For example, Sally made it quite clear that she would like her husband Tim to work less and to spend more time with her and their children. Although she delivered this message calmly and clearly to Tim, he angrily pressed her to be more specific. When the dust settled it was evident that Tim did not really need specifics; he heard Sally, but he simply did not want to work less. He felt the burden to make as much money as possible to support his family in the style to which they have been accustomed. Oftentimes, as in this case, our sensitivities are anchored in our families of origin: Sally was a middle sibling of nine who never felt heard or paid attention to; Tim was from a poor, uneducated family who evoked shame in him.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”—George Bernard Shaw

References

Gottman, J. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Harmony.

Guerney, B. (1977). Relationship enhancement. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Haley, J. (1991). Problem-solving therapy (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Satir, V. (1988). The new peoplemaking (2nd ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.   

Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J., & Jackson, D. (1967). Pragmatics of human communication: A study of interactional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes. New York: Norton.