What Is Unhealthy Communication In Marriage?

Couple sitting by a fire who aren’t speaking because of unhealthy communication in their marriage.

Once you know what it is, you’ll be able to begin making your marriage better.

The joy of falling in love is usually – at least in part – rooted in the natural ease of communication with one another. You have so much in common. You think so much alike. You resolve your disagreements seemingly before they happen. You say please, thank you, and I’m sorry. You listen, care, avoid judgment, and put one another first. But somewhere along the line unhealthy communication in marriage starts to eat away at your relationship. 

It’s insidious and doesn’t always have a clear beginning. But if you don’t wake up and recognize it, it will definitely have a clear end. 

If healthy communication is the glue that holds happy marriages together, then unhealthy communication in marriage can be the relationship’s unraveling.

Think about people and things you hold in high esteem. A work of art, a musician, an actor, a surgeon – they can all leave you in awe. But why? What makes you revere, applaud, respect one entity over another?

Chances are it has something to do with how effortless the execution of quality seems. When you are in the presence of “masters,” you don’t have to analyze their performances. You can simply enjoy them. 

And so it is with happy couples. Most of us can think of at least one couple that has been married just this side of forever. What keeps them together? What is it they have that other couples don’t? How have they managed not to have unhealthy communication in their marriage?

Learning about the successful practices of those who have been married over 50 years can be a good way to gauge your own success. What are they doing that seems so “easy” for them and yet so difficult for you? 

Sometimes unhealthy communication in marriage is about doing the opposite of the “right” thing. And sometimes it’s about simply not doing the “right” thing…or enough of it.

It may come as a surprise that the mark of a happy marriage isn’t “having no issues.” It’s not even the ability to resolve all or most of a couple’s issues.

According to marriage researcher John Gottman, 69% of issues in a marriage don’t get resolved. Yes, those happy couples who have made it past their golden wedding anniversaries are sitting on a lot of unresolved stuff! 

What makes communication healthy and couples happy is how partners choose to respond to their issues – even the ones that don’t go away. The same is true for unhealthy communication. 

Here are some behaviors and thought patterns that reveal unhealthy communication in marriage. 

  • Yelling
  • Anger is a natural emotion. But when it’s not kept in check and expressed in a responsible way, it can build up and eventually explode. And when that happens, the content of the message is lost to the intensity of delivery. 

    The person being yelled at doesn’t hear the hurt, frustration, or underlying fear of the other. S/he hears and remembers only the loud, offensive assault with negativity. 

    A primary goal of healthy communication is keeping your emotions under control so they don’t dominate your communication.

  • Blaming your spouse
  • Beginning statements with “you” is a slippery slope into blame. Words like “always” and “never” often follow, and before you know it, your spouse is playing defense. 

    Shifting your language to “I” statements can automatically soften the mood and make both of you willing to own part of the problem. 

    Always starting with a pointed finger and accusatory tone actually takes your power away and makes you a victim. Working on your self-awareness can help your relationship by helping you to stay contained and accountable for your own behavior. 

  • Having a competitive attitude
  • If you struggle with insecurities, you may not even realize what you do in order not to feel them. You may shelter your feelings, refuse to be vulnerable, and even project your feelings onto your spouse. 

    Instead of being about the union, your focus is on yourself and how you can feel good enough. And that usually comes out as an effort to always be right or superior. So much energy goes into being on top that you lose sight of the “we” that defines marriage in the first place.

  • Criticism
  • As one of Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, criticism bypasses a complaint about the situation and goes for the person. It’s a close kin to blame in that it often comes out as “you always” and “you never.” 

    A complaint, on the other hand, acknowledges a personal feeling in response to a specific behavior. And it leaves space to negotiate a resolution.

  • Defensiveness
  • It’s only natural to defend yourself if you feel attacked and/or blamed. “You always” has a knee-jerk reaction of “No I don’t!” or even a counter-blame. 

    Those who use defensiveness on a regular basis, though, avoid taking responsibility for anything in the relationship.

  • Contempt
  • This terribly negative communication style exudes moral superiority and disdain in the form of sarcasm, mocking, and hurtful humor. It is the worst of the Four Horsemen and the most dangerous form of unhealthy communication in marriage. 

    It is mean, demoralizing, devoid of empathy, emotionally dangerous…and the number-one predictor of divorce.

  • Stonewalling
  • People who stonewall shut down for self-preservation when they are overwhelmed or flooded in an argument. They go silent, look away, or remove themselves from the attack. 

    In the dance of contempt and stonewalling, all of the foundational essentials of a healthy marriage are lost. There is no trust, no emotional safety, no mutual respect, no kindness.

  • Forgetting the “we.” 
  • If you are caught up in what you want, what you feel, and what you’re not getting, you will easily forget the “we” of your marriage. 

    One inspiring behavior of couples who have been happily married for a long time is that they remember to walk in one another’s shoes. They try to think from the other person’s perspective and allow the other person to express feelings first. 

    And they look for ways to compromise and do loving things for their spouse.

The intimacy that is unique to marriage is rare in the opportunity it affords two people to heal old wounds. It is also unparalleled in the opportunity it offers two people to expand into the best versions of themselves.

If you’re struggling with unhealthy communication in marriage, give your relationship the chance it deserves. Everything comes down to communication. Why not use it to guarantee your happiness?

I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a life and divorce coach who helps people, just like you, who are struggling with unhealthy communication in their marriage. You can download your FREE copy of “Contemplating Divorce? Here’s What You Need To Know”. And if you’re interested in working with me personally, you can book an introductory 30-minute private coaching session with me.

Looking for more ideas for what to do about your unhappy marriage? You’ll find what you’re looking for in Unhappy Marriage.

How Can Self-Awareness Improve Your Relationship?

Self-aware woman standing behind her sitting husband and hugging him.

The real question is, “How can’t it?”

If you’re married, have you ever pondered the evolution (or de-evolution) of your relationship from an emotional and communication standpoint? Have you ever wondered how you went from hanging onto your soon-to-be spouse’s every word to having a knee-jerk reaction to everything s/he now says? It’s so easy to be aware of every little annoyance inflicted by the other person. And yet, that awareness never solves anything. So how can self-awareness improve your relationship if other-awareness can’t?

Words like “improve,” “grow,” and “evolve” are really just positive expressions for “change.” As we all know, the only thing consistent in life is change. But the defining element for the nature and quality of that change is awareness. Without it, change has no direction, no higher purpose.

Being aware of what is going on outside of you is far easier than being aware of what is going on inside of you. What others say and do, how they say and do it; traffic; weather; politics; love; hatred; kindness; war. Who has time to self-examine when there is so much to focus on “out there”? And by focusing “out there” you’re opening yourself up to being judgmental and placing blame.

The problem with blame is that, if your focus on the outside, then your power evaporates. You can’t change anything because you have no stake in the game. You become and remain a victim.

Having no responsibility means you also have no power. And having no power means you can’t effect change when and where you want.

As a victim in your own life and relationships, you retreat into defensiveness to protect yourself from a world that you assume is against you. To borrow a term from social psychology, you make a fundamental attribution error. The other person, in your mind, behaves out of ill will toward you. You jump to conclusions, make assumptions, and behave accordingly.

Before long, you’re looking at a marriage trampled by the Four Horsemen of the (Marriage) Apocalypse.

And all this because your awareness is pointed in the wrong direction.

So how can self-awareness help improve your relationship?

A few things about self-awareness first….

Self-awareness is a dimension of emotional intelligence, which is all about recognizing and managing your own emotions and helping others to do the same. Self-awareness is a moment-to-moment perception of what is going on in your own body, mind, feelings, and behavior. It involves the recognition of the interconnectedness of everything that comes from and affects you.

How can self-awareness help when your relationship is struggling and you don’t know how to fix it? Let’s start with what drives everything in relationships: communication.

When couples start fighting and distancing themselves from their former level of intimacy, there is inevitably a breakdown of communication at the core. One or both partners aren’t feeling heard and/or aren’t getting their needs met.

In the daily rush of life, it becomes easy to throw blame onto the other person. You never…you always…why can’t you…you don’t care…If I mattered, you would….Far quicker and easier to go that route than to check in with yourself and start digging for answers.

But digging for answers is at the heart of self-awareness. And once those answers reveal themselves, they stand at the ready to assist in moments of tension and negativity.

Consider the fact that “not feeling heard” is the fundamental issue of much marital discontent. What goes into feeling heard? What does that communication style look like?

One of the reasons that working with counselors and life coaches can be so effective is that active listening is foundational to their practices. If you have ever worked with a counselor or life coach, you will recognize the impact of eye contact, body language, and open-ended questions. You will notice, if you think about it, that the sessions are about you, and not what the professional projects onto you.

In a marriage, it can become easy to lose your grip on this important commitment in your communication style. And the only way to lose your grip is to lose (or never have) self-awareness.

If communication is at the heart of a healthy relationship, how can self-awareness help?

Getting in touch with your own emotions isn’t as easy as you might think. And recognizing what emotions are at bat and what emotions are on-deck can be tricky, especially when tempers are flaring.

But you have your body to deliver powerful signals and information to you. Flushed cheeks, quickened heart rate and respiration, tension in your muscles. These are all ways your body informs you of underlying emotional information.

When you are self-aware, you don’t let that physical, sensory information go by without acknowledging it. You ask it to lead you to the underlying emotion. Are you angry? Afraid? Sad? Worried?

Once you pinpoint the underlying emotion that is manifesting in physical form, you can tap into the history behind it. Have I experienced this fear before? What was happening in my life at that time? Is this really the same circumstance, or is it just a trigger to those old feelings and fears?

You may also recognize belief systems, assumptions, and other derivatives of your personal history popping up to shape your reactions and behaviors. Self-awareness empowers you to own those influencers. It also helps you to separate their message from the message you are receiving from your partner.

By dedicating time to the process of becoming self-aware, you (re)shape your communication. You are no longer a victim, but a facilitator of the change you want to see.

It doesn’t always feel good to revisit those old wounds whose scars like to get attention. But when you own them and take responsibility for how you live with them, you automatically shift the responses you get. You control your own behavior, soften the mood, and decrease the intensity between you and your partner.

All this because you took the time for self-examination.

All this because you learned and owned your own story.

All this because you became the change you wanted to see in your relationship.

I’m Dr. Karen Finn and I’m a life coach. Schedule a 30-minute private consultation for support in becoming more self-aware and how self-awareness can help improve your relationship.

Looking for more information about how you can have a happier life? You’ll find what you’re looking for in How To Become More Self-Aware.