Let’s talk (and listen) better: Communication in relationships

The main issue that many couples and families tell me that brings them to counselling is a failure of communication: they just don’t feel they’re getting their message across, the other person can’t see their point of view, and they see things differently.  It’s not that they’re not trying to communicate, not talking to each other but the messages seem to be missing the target, each person is convinced they’re right, and they are stuck in a circle of arguments.  


These disputes might appear to have different content but usually the underlying messages are the same: you’re not meeting my needs, I’m not happy with the way things are, you switch off, you don’t care and many more. To try to break this destructive and frustrating pattern some relatively simple things might help.

Red flags in couples communication

Julie and John Gottman, a prominent couple who work in relationship counselling and have produced many books, refer to these red flags as ‘The Four Horsemen’, meaning they are so dangerous they could signal the end of a relationship.  Becoming aware of whether we use these methods when attempting to communicate with our partners or family members can help us to stop using them and communicate better.


One or both people might feel like they are being attacked and become defensive to ward off these feelings. Defensiveness comes in many forms: making excuses for the behaviour ie “it’s not my fault….”, cross complaining ie “Yes, but you…..”, disagreeing but then cross complaining “That’s not true, you did….”, or starting off my agreeing and ending up disagreeing “It’s true I didn’t do that, but I do it most of the time…”, or complaining “it’s not fair, you’re picking on me….”


Insulting the other person, calling them names, using sarcasm, using bad body language or tone in speech: “You’re such an idiot, you never remember to…..”


This can cause the criticised person to withdraw and become emotionally distant as they feel they can never do anything right. “You never put the clothes away properly…” The criticised person can feel like they are being told off.


Where one person withdraws to avoid conflict. They refuse to argue, become silent, physically withdraw, and change the subject which can lead to avoidance/isolation in the relationship. Stonewalling can be considered the most dangerous of the red flags.

When we look at our own behaviour we start to notice if and when we are showing these behaviours and make a conscious effort to change them. It’s not easy, especially when we are feeling emotional, but with practice, we can change these patterns.

Listen to hear

It’s so easy to slip into a pattern of communication where we feel getting our point across is so important, we are right and we need the other person to acknowledge that, rather than being able to listen to both sides and try to find some common ground. As the other person is speaking we are formulating our response, our defence to their accusation, rather than taking time to really hear what they are saying. This means we are absorbing less of their message. Often we interrupt them as it’s so important to us to have our voices heard.

Some things that might help break this pattern are having a “no interrupting rule” or repeating back to the person what you have heard. Often we don’t hear what the other person is saying, we hear our interpretation of what they’re saying and if we’re feeling attacked we are listening from a defensive place. If someone is saying they are unhappy we can assume they are blaming us rather than other aspects of life that might be overwhelming them.  

If the person speaking can talk in the personal, saying “I feel…” rather than “you do…..” then the receiving person is less likely to become defensive. Repeating what you hear them saying back can make communication better, allow them to correct any misunderstanding or clarify things that aren’t clear,  and also allow tempers to become less frayed. Being heard can make a person feel really cared for and less likely to escalate an argument.

Put in a pause

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom” Viktor E Frankl.

When tempers are raised it’s so easy to speak without thinking and say things we might later regret. It’s hard to be controlled when we’re feeling emotional but if we can put a pause in before replying then we allow yourselves time to feel and be more reasonable. To start with, the thought might be “It would be sensible to take a breath here” but we find ourselves unable to do that. Over time we might be able to take a short break and with practice, the time will increase. This is likely to reduce tension and make communication far easier.

How is this going to be received?

This is a simple question to ask ourselves before rushing into communicating with our partners or family members. Do we need to say it or if we do can we frame it in a way that doesn’t feel accusatory to the other person? Remember starting the sentence with “I” is a good place to begin but in constructive communication, we’re not trying to win, or bring the other person down, rather find a compromise, and work as a team rather than as opponents.

Taking time out

Taking time out is different to stonewalling. If emotions are running high and we find ourselves in a loop when trying to communicate then it’s ok to take time away but we need to communicate that’s what we’re doing. Pointing out that we’re going around in circles, things are becoming very heated, or that we are feeling overwhelmed but offering to talk about the issue later is a way of stopping an argument disintegrating into days of not speaking. It’s important to make sure we agree to come together to discuss the issues later so that things don’t get forgotten until the next blow-up. Sitting down to talk when people feel calmer can be much more productive.


Finally, and I suppose inevitably, if you can’t find a relatively healthy and constructive way to communicate, or feel you need more help, I am going to recommend therapy. It’s so easy to find ourselves stuck in a less-than-happy relationship where we’re bickering and we’re feeling miserable. Finding a qualified therapist can really help shift us out of this depressing loop.  

We all tend to behave better in front of another person, and a counsellor can listen to your patterns, and your interpretation of what’s going on and maybe offer a new perspective. When I work with couples or families I always stress that the relationship is my client and it’s not about taking sides or apportioning blame; it’s about what’s happening between people, how they’re interacting with each other, their unique “dance”.

Being able to identify when we’re about to start the same pattern again is the first step towards changing it, and the more we do this the easier it is to stop, but it takes time, practice and commitment. Each person needs to look at their own part in the dynamic, even though it’s tempting to just blame the other person to try to convince them to change.

Good communication can have a transformative effect on any relationship: being able to state our needs, and feeling truly heard and understood can really change things for the better. Like all good habits it requires work, with often slow progress, and a real danger of falling back into old patterns, but by working together these difficulties can be overcome and setbacks minimised.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Exeter EX1 & Colyton EX24
Written by Charlotte Feeny, Counsellor MBACP BSc (Hons) Dip Couns
Exeter EX1 & Colyton EX24

A fully qualified and highly experienced counsellor working with individuals couples and families. I offer appointments face to face in Exeter and East Devon, also online and by phone

Visit charlottefeeny.co.uk.

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