By Dr. Jeffrey Chernin, PhD, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
10 Communication Traps and How to Avoid Them
Since I started practicing therapy over 25 years ago, the majority of couples I have worked with have said to me, “Most of the time, our relationship is good. But when it’s bad, it’s really bad.” At least half of the problem has to do with communication. Over time, the way couples communicate falls into a pattern. Some patterns, or dynamics, are helpful. Others not so much. Once problematic ways of communicating become established, the pattern is so predictable that most couples could write out a script about the way future disagreements will go.
If this sounds familiar, then you have found yourselves falling into communication traps, and the outcome is anger, hurt, and emotional distance. Here are ten common harmful dynamics – plus ways to avoid them.
#1: The Round-and-Round
The Round-and-Round is when each of you engages in a process of contradicting the other, Here’s an example:
“Your ex texted you? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I told you the other day.”
“No, you didn’t. I only found out because you told Jodi, and she told me.”
“Yes, I did. I told you that night we went to see that movie.”
“You did not. That was the last time. But you didn’t this time.”
Either person can put a stop to the Round-and-Round. If your partner says, “You never told me your ex texted you,” you could reply with “I thought I did. If I didn’t, I should have.” And your partner could have begun with, “Your ex texted you? I don’t recall you telling me.” You’re approaching each other with a lack of certainty, and the initial statement comes across as checking things out. You’re open to the possibility that you failed to mention it, and your partner admits that maybe you did say something but was possibly distracted or simply forgot.
#2: Attack-Defend Communication
An attack is a way to express your displeasure or anger about something that your partner has done. It can sound like a challenge, and the expectation is for you to get defensive. It often takes the form of a “Why did you…?” question (as in, “Why did you tell Jodi but not me?”).
One way to avoid the trap is to not defend yourself. This may sound counterintuitive, but think back to when you have defended yourself. Didn’t your partner simply find new ways to challenge you?
Instead, look for the emotion behind the attack. For example, “Why didn’t you text me?” You can say, “You sound pissed.” Your partner might reply with, “I sure am!” And you can reply with an apology. Disaster averted.
If you tend to go on the attack, try to not put your partner on the defensive. One way is to use a ‘preamble.’ An example is, “I know you didn’t do this intentionally, but you interrupted me several times.”
Reactivity is a rapid-fire exchange; rushing in as the other person is finishing a sentence or interrupting. When there’s a high degree of reactivity, you may end up in a communication trap.
To be less reactive, you may need to pause the argument and spend some time away from each other to collect yourselves. To make it work, have a pact to
- Not blame the other person for the need to cool down (Rather, say something like, “I’m getting upset and I’m having trouble hearing you over my thoughts”).
- Promise to pick up the topic later and follow up.
- The reply to a request for a cool-down should consist of one word: OK.
If you’re having trouble becoming less reactive, seek out information about communication. I go into detail on this and the other traps in my book Achieving Intimacy. Try writing in a journal or considering therapy for yourself. If you know where your buttons are coming from, let your partner know. That way, s/he is likely to have more empathy, take your reaction less personally, and stay cool.
#4: What About-ism
What about-ism is when you wait until your partner brings up a complaint, and then you immediately take the opportunity for airing grievances of your own. For example, if your partner says, “I’m uncomfortable with you visiting your aunt and sitting inside. I really wish you’d sit outside to reduce your risk of Covid.” And let’s say you reply, “Yeah, well what about your shopping for clothes when I have asked you that we should limit shopping just for the essentials.”
What about-ism is deflection, plain and simple. If your partner what-abouts you, consider answering with, “Fair point. And we should discuss it. But right now I want to finish what I just brought up. Then we can talk about your concern.”
#5: Bad timing
If your partner does something and you become incensed, the time to talk about it isn’t when it’s happening. That’s because you’re having highly-charged emotions, and you’re more likely to start a quarrel than if you wait until you have calmed down.
This idea isn’t new. Over 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Plutarch said, “If you’re angry, get out of the situation and don’t come back until you’re calm.”
It doesn’t mean becoming a doormat. Quite the contrary, bringing up a sensitive subject in a calm and rational manner will show your partner that you’re willing to stand up for yourself, and you’re less likely to say something you’ll regret.
#6: Not acknowledging the good
Many people speak up when it comes to saying something when their partner does something that hurts them, angers them, or is in need of correcting. But these very same people are sparing when it comes to showing their gratitude, appreciation, and even admiration for their partners.
I have discovered that many people carry a notion inside their heads that if their partners are doing what is expected of them, there’s no need to say anything (this idea finds a corollary and perhaps its roots in corporate life). But when something upsets them, they should absolutely say something.
However, being criticized over and over can harm your partner’s spirit. It can lead to “Not Good Enough Syndrome,” where your partner says, “No matter what I do, I’m not good enough.”
The phrase A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine goes down applies here. As a rule-of-thumb, for every correction and criticism, I recommend three to four positive, reinforcing, and grateful comments, and it would hopefully be organic and not forced.
As important, if you have asked for a change in your their behavior and they are essentially complying, it is important to tell them that you see and appreciate your partner‘s efforts.
I have had several clients tell me that offering positive reinforcement is like treating their partners like a dog. My reply is simple: “Yes, and you should ask yourself why you are treating your dog better than your partner.”
If your partner is doing this to you, and you feel like you’re not good enough, you can ask your partner for some acknowledgment. And you can use the same tool: Acknowledge when your partner is being more positive, and try to ignore critical comments.
#7: Assuming your Partner is a Mind Reader
If you or are upset about something, say what is bothering you. In fact, it’s a bit unfair and even perhaps a set-up to assume that your partner knows what is troubling you. Rather, be explicit.
#8: Scanning for Errors
When you disagree about something, it’s natural to point out the areas in which you differ. However, some people take this a step further and are on the lookout when their partners are mistaken. If you do this, it’s important to ask yourself why you are taking on the role of fault-finding. And why just point out the mistakes when you should also be pointing out what you think is true?
#9: Waiting to Cash In
Imagine: You repeatedly don’t say anything when your partner does something that really bothers you. You wait. They do it again. And again. And again. Finally, you explode with anger. Instead of cashing in all of your chips at once, mention it by the second or third occurrence. You won’t have stored up as much frustration, and they won’t be so set in their ways.
#10 Getting into Theoretical Arguments
Theoretical arguments usually take the form of if… then… For example, “What would you say to that guy at work who has a crush on you if he actually hit on you?” These kinds of statements are often tiptoeing around something that is vulnerable to the person making it. It would be better to be more direct – to express your insecurities and fears.
Rewriting Your Scripts
These suggestions can provide useful methods to help you to avoid communication traps that couples get into time and time again. By rewriting problematic communication scripts, you are on the way as you continue to enjoy the good times, reducing the duration, intensity, and frequency of the bad, and overall strengthening your connection as you increase intimacy.
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