What Is Unhealthy Communication In Marriage?

a man in blue with his head in his hands and a woman in white looking away sitting apart on a white couch with white background

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.