Communication Breakdown


Communication is universally regarded as one of the most important aspects of any relationship, and it is also seen as one of the best indicators of long term success.

If you look up quotes on communication in relationships it’s amazing how many you’ll find. Here is one of my favorites:

Communication is the fuel that keeps the fire of your relationship burning, without it your relationship goes cold – William Paisley

Inherently we all know how important communication is. Yet I commonly hear people talk about how they aren’t able to communicate with their spouse. Well actually that’s not true. We’re always communicating even when no words are spoken. It’s just that we often do it poorly. So the question becomes why do so many of us communicate so poorly? To understand that, we have to understand a bit more about what communication is.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides the following definition for communication:

the act or process of using words, sounds, signs, or behaviors to express or exchange information or to express your ideas, thoughts, feelings, etc., to someone else

When people think communication, verbal is often the first thing that comes to mind. As the definition indicates though, communication is any form of expression. It can also be written communication, body language, and touch.

In a relationship I think body language and touch are the most important forms of communication. Sometimes you can say more with a smile, a hug, or a squeeze of the hand than any words can convey. And as I discussed in my post on sex, intimacy (which doesn’t just mean sex) is a special form of communication specific to relationships. It’s the thing that separates that special someone in your life from just another friend.

The Perfect World

What does communication look like in a perfect world? I think this sums it up quite nicely:


You can tell the other person anything without fear of ridicule or embarrassment. You can talk about anything, good things and bad. You can deal with conflict points together without either of you getting defensive or critical, because you know that you are doing it for the betterment of the relationship. Communication used this way lets you promote understanding of each other, and help strengthen your connection.

For this to happen you need to be in a situation where you have allowed all your walls to come down, and you have let the other person in completely (or at least as much as possible); and they have done the same with you.

And Now for a Dose of Reality

Of course in a perfect world I could eat chocolate all day while having the body of an Olympic gymnast. I would speak 10 languages and spend my days travelling the world with my family; going from villa to villa on our private jet. And perhaps I would spend my weekends roaming the countryside on my pet unicorn while figuring out the cure to cancer and how to create world peace. But sadly, perfection doesn’t exist.

You see, people have feelings and emotions, and sometimes the things that need to be said aren’t easy to hear. Not just that, but how you say something is just as important as what you say.

There’s an oft cited study that found the actual words used in verbal communication only make 7% of the message. The remaining 93% of the message comes from the tone of voice and body language used when conveying the message. Recent studies have found that the spoken words are closer to 30%, but even with the new numbers it’s clear that tone and body language are still really important.

When it comes to relationships, the point is that you have to be careful how you communicate. If you have a sensitive issue you want to discuss, it’s best to try to figure out what you want to say and try to do it rationally. When emotions are running high it’s very easy for the actual meaning to get lost in the emotion. When someone is in attack mode, it’s just human nature for people to withdraw, or get defensive.

In his book “Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work”, Dr. John Gottman says that conflict is normal, and couples will fight. One of his findings is that there is no correlation between how frequently a couple fights and their level of marital success. What does have a strong link to marital success is HOW they fight. He calls criticism (where you attack their character), contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” for relationships. It’s important to try and find a way to communicate while keeping those to a minimum.

Barriers to communication

Beyond worrying about how you communicate, you also have to be conscious about various things that act as barriers to communication.

One of the biggest barriers is that we all interpret things through the filters of our own expectations and experiences. I’ve talked about this a bit in a prior post.

There are also theories that women and men simply communicate differently. One of the most common differences is the way men and women approach issues. Supposedly men interrupt more, have a harder time expressing gratitude and apologizing. Men also try to “solve” things while women often just want to be heard. This last one is wonderfully illustrated in the short film It’s not about the nail (If you haven’t seen the video, check it out. Seriously, it’s priceless). I’m not sure I buy into most of the gender differences, but I can definitely relate to that one.

I think it’s fair to say that communication is one of, if not THE most important aspects of a relationship. But there are many things that can make communication difficult. Because of this, perhaps the most important thing that you can do as a couple is work on your communication strategies on a daily basis, always striving to improve them.

Different people have different ways to communicate. Learn to understand your own preferred method of communication, and learn your partners. Come up with a way of communicating with each other that works for both of you, and spend the rest of your lives making this a priority. Communication is the lifeblood of your relationship, and without it your relationship will be at risk.

Communication breakdown

In the early days of relationship, communication seems to come easy. In those early days, although you may be talking, you are really in the stage that you are still learning about each other. Eventually there will come a point in time when you know the other person well enough that there is nothing new to tell.

Let’s face it, most of life is routine. For many years you wake up and get ready for work. In most cases your job is largely the same day to day, so the stories of “what did you do today dear?” really don’t change much.

If you add children to the relationship, by the time your work day is done and the children are in bed one or both or you are often exhausted. Many couples find that a number of years go by where they have had very little time to be a couple, and that can take a toll.

I was talking to a friend a few months back who has two primary school aged children. Often their couple time was limited to a few hours here and there when the kids were at a party or something, and they would use that time to run errands or catch up on things on their to do list. One day he decided that instead of that, they would go on a date. No errands, and no talking about the kids. They went out for dinner, and he found they didn’t really know what to do, or how to talk to each other. Their lives had been built around being parents for so long that they had lost sight of how to be a couple.

I think this is a common problem, and it’s a transition many parents go through when their kids get old enough that they are no longer completely dependent on them. For many couples this is a very difficult transition. Even without kids, it is something that most couples will face eventually. There simply comes a point in time where you know each other so well there isn’t a lot to say.

Because of this, it’s important that you never get so caught up in the routines of day to day life that you stop being a couple. Make each other a priority in your lives, and never stop talking. It’s important that each of you has your own interests to give your relationship space to grow, but you should also try to find an activity that you can do together (preferably one that gets you out of the house), and ensure you make that a priority.

Over time, routine will always set in. But set goals together and ensure you are working towards those goals. Never stop talking to each other, and letting each other into your hearts and souls. Sometimes silence is beautiful and peaceful. Like those times when you are side by side, and no words are needed. When you can say more with a simple look, or a squeeze of the hand then words could ever convey. Other times, silence can be deafening and be the most painful feeling there is.

In the words of Robert Smith of The Cure:

Side by side in silence
They pass away the day
So comfortable, so habitual…
And so nothing left to say

And side by side in silence
Without a single word…

It’s the loudest sound
It’s the loudest sound…

It’s the loudest sound I ever heard

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