9 Min Read
- What Happens When The Right Kind Of Conversations Don’t Occur
- What Lack Of Communication Looks Like
- Reasons Why Partners Don’t Communicate
- When Does Lack Of Communication Become A Big Problem?
- What To Do When Communication Is Lacking
- What To Take Away
All relationships experience occasional communication challenges. But, sadly, in many relationships a lack of communication becomes the norm. After all, there’s reason communication problems are the most common complaint in couples counseling.
In counseling I regularly hear partners tell me they either talk all the time or they never talk.
Both descriptions can be misleading if taken literally.
The truth is most couples do talk, but talking isn’t the same as communicating.
Many couples consider the words they exchange daily regarding the administrative aspect of life together talking.
- "Are you taking Tyler to school or am I?"
- “Did you pay the electric bill?”
- “What do you want for dinner?”
- “Have you heard the Jones’ are getting divorced?”
However, really talking and discussing the deeper issues in your life and relationship is much different than these mundane exchanges.
- "Are you happy with us?"
- “It feels like we’re drifting apart."
- “I want to improve our sex life.”
- "Do we need to make some changes?"
When a partner complains about a lack of communication it’s usually this level of conversation that’s missing.
What Happens When The Right Kind Of Conversations Don’t Occur
When partners tell me they never talk that's obviously not true. Although the ability to text and DM (direct message) has literally made talking verbally easy to avoid.
A couple recently told me they actually text each other while sitting in bed together.
Partners who claim they talk all the time are exaggerating as well. And the conversations they do have aren’t usually about vulnerable topics that affect their relationship.
For example, check out Lacey’s story and see if it sounds familiar.
There's a lot of problems in the relationship including money, but our biggest problem is lack of communication. He has a tendency to keep things bottled up until it just comes out at the wrong time and the wrong way. I get blamed for his anger and then he would say that he's the calm one and I'm the problem. If there's an argument and I try assertive communication he doesn't go with the flow and just says 'it's all my fault' in an angry tone. I keep saying that it's not about putting blame, it's about expressing feelings...but it never seems to work. I'm at breaking point in trying and it feels like it's getting worse. We are struggling so much in money. I always start the conversation saying 'I don't want to start an argument but we will be short on the mortgage, can you please transfer money.' So how can I create a normal communication line between us without stressing that our communication will be f@#%*d again?" -Lacey
When communication in a relationship isn’t happening, or at least the right kind of communication isn’t happening, it can leave a relationship open to a myriad of problems. Lacey’s situation is just one example of what can happen.
In addition, there can be,
- Misunderstandings. These can lead to confusion and potential conflict.
- Resentment. When feelings of frustration or anger are not addressed, they can fester and create emotional distance between spouses.
- Growing emotional distance. Lack of communication can create emotional distance between partners.
- Unmet needs. This can lead to dissatisfaction and a sense of unfulfillment.
- Conflict avoidance. Some couples avoid difficult conversations to prevent conflict, but this can backfire. Avoiding important topics can lead to more significant conflicts down the road when issues have been allowed to get bigger and bigger.
- Lack of physical intimacy. Intimacy, particularly sexual, depends on open communication. Without it, couples can struggle to connect on a deeper level.
- Infidelity. In some cases, individuals may seek emotional or physical intimacy outside of the marriage when they feel unfulfilled or unheard within their relationship.
What Lack Of Communication Looks Like
Lack of communication in a relationship can look different from couple to couple. It can sound like,
- “He never tells me when he’ll be home.”
- “She just expects me to know what she’s thinking.”
- “He figures I should just know he loves me which means he doesn't have to say it.”
- “She won’t talk after an argument. She just closes down and says everything is ‘fine.'"
- “I think she’s happy with our relationship, but I've never asked.”
Need further clarification?
Here's a real-life example of what lack of communication can look like in a marriage (I'm currently counseling the wife).
A husband, Allen, is unhappy with the sex in his marriage. Rather than speak to his wife, Renee, and tell her how he feels and what he'd like to change in their sex life, he decides to write her a letter instead. Now to be fair sex is a difficult topic for most couples to talk about, but Allen and Renee also have a long-standing pattern in their relationship of avoiding dealing with things.
Renee reads the letter but instead of talking to Allen she just mentally decides she'll make more of an effort. She also journals about some of the reasons why she thinks their sex life is the way it is but never shares this information with Allen. So, Allen’s letter goes unacknowledged, and nothing gets discussed.
It's now 10 years later, Allen is having an affair and is divorcing Renee. His limited explanation of why he wants to end their 27-year marriage goes back to that letter. Allen says she never responded to it. Renee says she did and tried to make their sex better. He says he didn't see any change.
Allen believes he communicated with Renee. Renee feels he never told her he was still unhappy after the letter. Lack of communication has led to divorce for this couple. It all started with their pattern of avoiding talking with each other that grew and grew over time.
What do you see here?
- Misunderstanding? Yes.
- Conflict avoidance? Absolutely.
- Resentment? You bet.
- Unmet needs? For sure.
- Growing emotional distance? It’s there.
- Lack of intimacy? Clearly.
Another common example of communication problems is when partners try to communicate with each other through their kids.
- "Ask your mom if it’s ok to have your friend sleep over."
- “Tell your dad he needs to take you to soccer.”
- “Let you mom know the laundry needs to be done.”
- “Ask your dad if you can be off restriction.”
It's the parents' responsibility to talk with each other about parenting decisions, not run the discussion through their kids.
Lack of communication often arises around deeper issues. For example,
Clay really wants to know if his 4-year relationship with Zoey will lead to marriage. But he feels stuck because every time he tries to talk about their relationship and the questions he has about it she says he's being negative or attacking her. So, he backs off to avoid the conflict. They have fun weekends together, but he wants more and is unsure if she does too.
As a result, they continue dating for another 3 years without discussing marriage and Zoey feels like he’s afraid of commitment because he hasn’t proposed.
Could an open and honest conversation (several of them) have changed that timeline? Yep.
Here's another example of a relationship with communication standing in their way.
My boyfriend of almost 8 years is saying that he's not happy and doesn't think he should be in a relationship right now. While he says that things haven't felt right for 2 years, he never indicated anything was wrong. I am completely blindsided by all of this. I love him so much and thought we were building a life together. Things have gone from being fine to I don't know if he even loves me status overnight, it feels like. He doesn't communicate at all and has completely shut down. He is also battling depression currently. I have no idea what to do. I want to fight for us, but I don't know where to begin. I'm scared and heartbroken. He's been my world for 8 years. Please help me." -Hannah
Reasons Why Partners Don’t Communicate
The number of reasons for a lack of communication between partners is too long to list.
However, there are some common triggers and patterns for communication problems in relationships. Eventually, if couples don’t learn how to overcome it, the lack of communication becomes a habit and the norm, as opposed to a temporary response to a specific event.
Avoidance is a common response pattern in relationships – just ask Renee. Many avoid certain topics (sex, money, etc.) or situations that have to potential to create conflict.
While avoidance may feel like dodging a bullet, it only provides relief in the moment. The issue being avoided usually doesn't go away and requires eventual accounting for when ignored – just ask Allen.
Unfortunately, all partners can naturally drift apart over time (if they're not doing things to counter it). Most people typically don’t see this happening until the gulf between them is almost too wide to be bridged.
Many say they just wake up one day and one partner has either stepped out of the relationship by cheating, someone says, “I love you but I’m not in love with you,” or is just "done" and wants to separate.
This is what a lack of communication can lead to overtime even though in the moment it doesn't look that bad or damaging.
I was counseling a man recently whose 38-year marriage is ending in divorce. We were examining their habit of avoidance during their relationship, and he summed it up by saying, "We never had those conversations."
I noted that that statement could have been the motto for their marriage (and for why it failed).
As I mentioned, one of the most painful examples of the consequences that can result from a lack of communication is below.
Last year my husband told me he didn't love me anymore. He actually cried when he told me and told me he wanted to try and work it out with me. He said we have had so many unsolved problems over the years, fights, lack of communication, no sex life, etc., that his feelings have changed for me. He refuses to go to counseling because it won't help him. He moved out so we are now legally separated. We are doing nothing now to fix our marriage. He says he can't do anything with me that he doesn't feel or have the desire to do. Is there still hope for my marriage? I don't want a divorce. I still love my husband and my family. We have two very small children. I don't want this life for them." -Cynthia
Additional reasons I’ve heard given by partners who stop communicating include,
- “It’s a battle to be heard and I'm sick and tired of trying.”
- “He doesn’t listen. If he’s not going to listen then why should I talk?"
- “She uses the silent treatment to punish me for disagreeing with her.”
- "He uses our communication like a weapon and turns every conversation into a power struggle, like a game of chicken to see who will crack first, who was right and wrong, who wins and loses.”
- “No talking means she's not nagging me.”
- “Talking turns into a laundry list of things I’m doing wrong and what I need to change.”
- “She uses every past misstep I've made as leverage against me to win.”
- “Everything I say makes him upset, angry or hurt, so I stay quiet.”
- “I'm unhappy with another part of our relationship (like sex) and so I take out my frustration and anger by not communicating with her.”
- “Our relationship is more about convenience and maintaining a lifestyle than about intimacy and love, so why talk about anything deeper (there isn't anything deeper)?”
This list could go on and on, but this gives you an idea of some of what I hear partners say to explain their lack of communication. The reasons may be endless, but the results are the same.
When Does Lack Of Communication Become A Big Problem?
Poor communication happens to everyone -- even between partners in healthy relationships.
We all can forget to share something or leave out some important detail by mistake.
Getting upset and not communicating for a while doesn't have to be an enormous problem. Sometimes allowing a pause is helpful and part of practicing good communication skills.
Lack of communication becomes a problem based on the frequency and level of damage it causes. As described above it can become a pattern of avoidance or even a form of verbal abuse when it turns into the silent treatment.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself to evaluate the negative effects not communicating has had or is having:
- When was the last meaningful conversation we had?
- Are there things I wish my partner knew?
- What big topics haven’t we talked about?
- Am I dissatisfied with something that could possibly be fixed if we talked?
- How is our lack of communication affecting us? Me?
- Could our relationship be stronger?
- Are we really as connected as we could be? Or, as I would like?
What To Do When Communication Is Lacking
In order to fix a lack of communication in any relationship both partners need to see it as a problem and want to change it.
Unfortunately, it’s very common that one person is more motivated than the other, or one partner doesn’t even recognize that there’s a problem.
Regardless of whether you both agree there's a communication problem or it's just you, there are 3 things you can do to begin to initiate positive changes.
- Acknowledge the problem. Is there a lack of communication in your relationship? Then call it out to your partner as a problem that needs to get fixed.
- Recognize your role in the problem. In a relationship it’s extremely rare that blame for a problem rests solely on the shoulders of only one partner. So, own your part in the poor communication before pointing a finger at your partner. It's far easier to assign blame than it is to say, "I'm sorry. I could have said that better." You need to take responsibility for how you play a part so you can get your partner to be willing to do the same.
- Get professional help. Communication can be hard. Really hard. It seems like it's easy, but it's not always. Most of us have also had pretty poor role models too.
Finding a professional counselor to teach you effective communication techniques, mediate differences between the two of you, and to coach you is invaluable (My wife and I have done it -- and I teach people to communicate for a living! We all need it.) Frequently partners will tell me that one of the reasons they meet with me is because when I'm present it’s the only time when they feel safe to speak honestly and will be heard.
What To Take Away
Sadly, lack of communication in relationships is common.
Julian recently wrote in and asked,
My wife and I are in need of marriage counseling due to communication issues and pretty much everything else. There is so much I don't even know where to start. Can we get that spark and happiness back?" -Julian
Yes, Julian, you can.
Just the fact that you recognize the lack of communication in your relationship as a problem is a good first step. But it’s not the only step, there’s work you’ll need to do to fix it.
Unfortunately, just accepting it and not doing anything to change it is common too. The most important thing is whether you're going to be like Julian and do something about it.
What's the lack of communication in your relationship or marriage look like? Get some feedback by sharing your story with us and fellow readers in a comment below.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published July 3, 2019 and has been updated with new information for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
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