Three Dead-End Approaches to Communication (And One Way Out)

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One summer in college, I shared a house with eleven other women (and yes, it was as crazy as it sounds).  We had a house meeting early on where we outlined rules and expectations for living together.  One roommate asked that we use direct, verbal communication when we had concerns, rather than leaving notes, which could be seen as passive-aggressive.  While we took her concern seriously, we began to playfully design perfect passive-aggressive comments.  This experience taught me a lot about what not to do, but it also demonstrated the benefits of direct communication. 

Poor communication is the #1 reason why couples come to therapy.  Typically, communication styles between partners clash and lead to conflict, and direct communication is not happening.  Often unhealthy systems of relating are modeled for us in our families growing up, and our adoption of our parents’ styles wreaks havoc in our marriages.

Determining your own communication style sheds light on ways you can speak more directly and improve your marriage.   Here are three common unhealthy types of communication.

Passive

When you’re faced with conflict, do you run away?  Maybe you don’t speak up about your needs, invalidating your desires.  You may feel anger from time to time, but it’s easy to belittle yourself and make excuses for why you shouldn’t bring it up.

Passive communicators tend to be conflict avoidant, masking their negative emotions through calm or complacency.  Yet they must to deal with their negative emotions somehow and might find themselves turning to addictive behaviors as a coping mechanism.  This is the member of the duo that wants to run away from conflict and stop the conversation as soon as possible.

Beliefs that drive this communication style include unworthiness or low self-esteem.  Passive communicators don’t trust their own judgment and emotions, and they can feel like a doormat.

Aggressive

In contrast to the passive style, aggressive communicators use more intimidation or force with the way they speak.  They might use sarcasm, contempt, yelling, or name-calling in the course of a conflict conversation.  At extremes, this can become verbal abuse, used to gain control.

Aggressive personalities have a low tolerance for emotional distress, and therefore can fly off the handle unexpectedly.  When the passive partner withdraws, the aggressive spouse may become more ramped up and try to continue the conversation.  They want to make sure their point is heard, and therefore act as the pursuer.  Surprisingly, this communication style can also be motivated by low self-esteem.

Passive-Aggressive

Passive-aggressive communication occurs when anger has been pushed down so often that it spills out sideways.  It is often a function of the suppressed anger of the passive style boiling over.  Although the individual tries to ignore the anger as long as possible, like a beach ball that’s being held underwater, it will eventually pop back up unexpectedly, uncontrollably, and with more force than it took to push it down.

Rather than direct communication, passive-aggressive words require your spouse to be able to read between the lines and guess your thoughts and feelings.  It undermines their experience, such as when the passive-aggressive communicator denies being upset when they are bothered.  Often this style is motivated by a fear of what will happen if you communicate directly.  The hope is to find a way around direct communication and still gain control or get your needs met.

Can you tell which of these three communication styles is your go-to?  Maybe you experience more than one, or they change based on circumstances and people.  But if you find yourself stuck in these patterns, what does healthy communication look like?

Assertive

Assertive, or direct, communication is an effective way to have our feelings and needs heard and to hear the same in others without escalating into emotional volatility.  A simple formula, as described in an earlier post, is to say the following: I feel _____ because _____ and what I need is_____.

I encourage my clients to do something I call “speaking the subtext.” Often when we speak with our spouse, we imply something different from what our words are saying on the surface.  For example, when you ask, “what time are you getting home from work today?” are you wondering about a certain time, or are you implying that you’d like your spouse to come home early to help make dinner?

When being assertive, emotions don’t overwhelm and derail conversations as easily.  It is easier to set boundaries and take responsibility.  Assertive communication is motivated by a healthy view of your own value and empathy for others.

What are some steps you could take today to more toward more assertive communication?

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Do you feel like you’re unable to stand up for yourself?  Are you constantly in conflict?  Do you bottle up your anger until it bursts?   If you’re ready to revolutionize your patterns of relating, we’d love to help.  Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor and Novi therapy office specializing in healing marriages using Gottman Method techniques.  Give us a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here today to hear more about how we can help transform your relationships.