4 Couples Communication Problems and How to Solve Them
common communication problems in relationships

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Today’s article will discuss 4 couples communication problems and how to solve them.  For example, in emotionally committed relationships, we love one another earnestly through our communication patterns.  Over time, however, we discover that the power of love doesn’t cover, hide, or eliminate flaws in a relationship.  Instead, love exposes them and creates a clash between our expectations and reality.

What Is Couples Communication?

It’s no secret that communication is the bedrock of solid relationships and healthy communication patterns are vital for maintaining them. Most of us accept that idea without question or objection. Ironically, we fail to appreciate the power that communication has to heal a troubled relationship or infect and kill a healthy one.

Despite being difficult or uncomfortable at times, communicating effectively with your partner is both possible and well worth it.  For starters, let’s keep it simple and start with the basics.

Communication is fundamental to the existence and survival of any friendship, partnership or marriage. It’s the process of creating and sharing our ideas, facts, views, and feelings with our partners.  Although communication seems easy, that process has two main requirements:

    1. We must be transparent and vulnerable with each other.
    2. We must be good listeners.

Why Is Communication In A Relationship So Important?

Communicating well helps couples bond, connect, and trust each other. It helps us dive below the surface to resonate with each other’s wants, wishes, and desires. At the same time, it helps us share and discover our fears, concerns, or hurts about the daily things we face together.   Healthy communication patterns give us deeper access to each other so we can fully understand and rely on one another. Developing healthy communication patterns is key to reducing and resolving conflict quickly.  Best of all, healthy communication ensures that we enjoy a secure and lasting bond for life!

In contrast, when unhealthy communication patterns govern a relationship, we tend to interrupt, lose eye contact, blame, and criticize. They also drive us to disengage, get distracted, over-focus on ourselves, and make sweeping assumptions that result in someone feeling misunderstood, alone, hurt, or just plain angry.

When communication is difficult in a relationship, most people know they need to improve it.  Otherwise, divorce or a lifetime of heartbreak, pain, and loneliness will consume you. Thankfully, there is helps so keep reading…

The Root Cause Of Couples Communication Problems

Since love does not conquer all, let’s explore recent discoveries from the scientific community. Brace yourself, it’s kind of eye-opening:

John Gottman’s Contribution

Renowned marriage researcher John Gottman can predict which couples are more likely to build long-term, satisfying relationships and which couples will build conflictual, unhappy relationships and lead toward a break-up or divorce with over 90% accuracy.

Contrary to popular belief, differences in background, age, or even opinions don’t determine the fate of a relationship. Instead, Gottman uncovered specific patterns in how people communicate that influence the overall health of a relationship. Among his most important findings is a set of communication habits he called “The Four Horsemen.”  Those four behaviors are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt.

Gottman named these four communication patterns to reflect the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the New Testament of the Bible. Those four horsemen—conquest, war, hunger, and death—signaled the final events of history and the destiny of humanity. Likewise, when couples habitually rely on the Four Horsemen during communication, his research suggests that the relationship is likely to become unstable, unhappy, and headed for “the end times.”

John Gottman’s Legacy

Since the 1970s, Gottman has studied thousands of couples in an apartment laboratory at the University of Washington called the Love Lab, where he and his team observed couples, recorded their interactions, and then tracked their relational satisfaction. His research team demonstrated that when couples resort to criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and/or contempt during challenging moments, they activate what’s known as the “distance and isolation cascade.”  Over time, as a couple develops the four habits without successful “repair,” they will isolate and move toward each other less and less to meet their connection needs.

One thing is for sure, when things heat up in a relationship, it’s normal to use these “bad habits” from time to time because none of us are immune. However, the key is to recognize that relying on these “bad habits” or Four Horseman interferes with successful repair attempts, connection and intimacy.

Thankfully, Gottman’s research offers a solution for each of the four horsemen to help you and your partner build or repair your relationship instead of tearing it down.

Horseman #1:  Criticism

Criticism in a relationship occurs when we focus on our partner’s flaws—and then pass judgment. It is expressed through disapproving, critiquing, correcting, blaming, nitpicking, or fixing. Constant criticism is not constructive, encouraging, or inspiring.

For example, imagine walking into your messy house after a long day of work and discovering your kiddo’s toys all over the floor or a sink full of dirty dishes. When you try to express your unmet needs, you have two basic options: “criticism” or “complaint.”

Complaint: Ugh! I’m so tired at the end of the day, and it’s frustrating to walk into our house and encounter toys on the floor and a sink full of dirty dishes.

Criticism:  Ugh! I’m so tired from work. What have you been doing all day? You don’t seem to care about the toys all over the floor, and you always leave the sink full of dishes!

In this example, the complaint makes the dirty dishes the problem, while the criticism makes your partner the problem. The complaint is an invitation to understand your frustration, while the criticism is a verbal attack or character assassination.

The solution: Unmet needs and expectations occur in every relationship. However, when you express unmet needs with criticism, your partner is less likely to be curious and more likely to be furious. Rather than expressing your needs with criticism, Gottman suggests using a gentle startup.

The Gentle Startup Strategy:

The general startup has some key ingredients:  1) what you noticed, 2) sharing your feelings, and 3) stating a specific need. For example, “When I come home from work and see toys on the floor and dirty dishes in the sink (what you noticed), I feel unsupported and frustrated (sharing your feelings). I need our home to be a more peaceful and orderly environment (what you need).  Can you do that for me?

Horseman #2:  Defensiveness

We are hardwired to protect ourselves, and defensive behavior is sure to follow when we experience real or perceived criticism. When the alarm sounds and our defenses get activated, we all tend to resort to one of the following defensive strategies:

Minimize: “It’s not that big of a deal. You’re turning a 2 into a 10. Try to relax.” 

Assume the victim role: “You always find the bad guy in every situation.”     

Use yeah, but…: “Yes, there are toys and dirty dishes in the sink, but I was busy today.”

Overexplain: “I tried to wash the dishes, but there was no soap, so I went to the store and…”

Tit-for-tat: “I’ll wash the dishes when you come home without being so grumpy.” 

Defensiveness is most often a response to criticism. If you become defensive, your actions convey an unspoken, yet powerful message.  As a result, your partner might assume they don’t matter, they’re not important, they don’t get access to you, or you are not there for them when things get tough. In response, disconnection, hurt feelings, and more criticism usually follow. Yes, there is a time and a place to share your perception. However, when a partner is complaining with intense emotion, it’s usually their desperate attempt at “please understand me!”

When your defenses overshadow the heat of the moment, don’t be surprised if your partner feels attacked or believes they have not been seen, heard, or understood.  They need empathy and understanding, not defensiveness.

The solution: instead of getting defensive, try to take responsibility for your part, even if it’s a small part. Although you don’t have to agree with your partner fully, try validating and accepting their perspective by offering some form of empathy. You may also want to offer an apology for any wrongdoing.

Using the same example above, “You’re right. The sink is a mess (validation, acceptance), and I would be frustrated if I were in your shoes (empathy). Although I promised you a clean sink this morning, I didn’t follow through, and I’m sorry for that (responsibility).

Horseman #3:  Stonewalling

When heated discussions occur in a relationship, the listener withdraws from the interaction, shutting down and closing themselves off from the speaker because they feel overwhelmed or physiologically flooded. As a result, the listener’s fight, flight, or freeze reflex gets activated. Metaphorically speaking, they build a wall between themselves and their partner to protect themselves from either real or perceived harm. When stonewalling occurs, our relationship skills fade, and talents like problem-solving, humor, or empathy disappear fast. What’s left is a stonewall.

The solution: When partners become physiologically flooded, emotionally reactive moments like stonewalling are sure to follow. Even so, it’s important to protect each other from moments when flooding results in stonewalling and agree, in advance, to take a needed break and revisit the situation when everyone is cool, calm, and emotionally collected. During that break, those flooded can practice self-soothing strategies like deep breathing, exercise, stretching, walking the dog, or distracting themselves with a stress relief gadget to unwind.


Stonewalling:  “Just forget it. I’m done.”

Self-soothing:  “I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed, so I need to take a break from our conversation. I’m going to go a do [soothing activity], let’s resume our discussion at [time].”

Horseman #4:  Contempt

According to Gottman’s research, contempt in a relationship is the single most harmful behavior. It’s not only the biggest indicator of divorce, it weakens the body’s immune system making us more vulnerable to physical and mental health problems like chronic anxiety or depression.

Treating others with disrespect, distain, and mocking them with sarcasm and condescension are forms of contempt. So are hostile humor, name-calling, mimicking, and body language such as eye-rolling and sneering.

For Gottman, contempt stems from a sense of feeling unappreciated, overlooked, or unacknowledged. It’s typically rooted in unexpressed anger that festers and grows over time. When expressed, others tend to feel “less than” or inferior.

Complaint: Ugh! I’m so tired at the end of the day, and it’s frustrating to walk into our house and encounter toys on the floor and a sink full of dirty dishes.

Criticism:  Ugh! I’m so tired from work. What have you been doing all day? You don’t seem to care about the toys all over the floor, and you always leave the sink full of dishes!

Contempt:  Wow. After a long day at work, I’m not surprised by the disaster you created. Like the rest of your family, you’re lazy, neglectful, and too busy to clean up after yourself.

With contempt, it’s time to work on building new communication skills to discuss troubled feelings. Thankfully Gottman’s research offers some solutions:

Solution 1:  Use a gentle start-up.

A gentle start-up is a way to introduce a concern without blame, judgment, or attack. Here’s what I mean:

Harsh start-up: “Stop interrupting me.”

Gentle start-up: “I’d like to finish my thought before you respond. Thanks for hanging on just a moment more.”

Using gentle start-up improves the likelihood that the conversation will go in the right direction. Even more, it reduces both criticism and defensiveness.

Solution 2:  Use of “I” statements instead of “you” statements.

For example, “I” statements invite a partner to understand your feelings. In contrast, “you” statements (you always… you never…) tend to judge others, cast blame, criticism and contempt towards your partner.  Using our previous example:

“Sweety, it would mean a lot to me if I could come home from a hard day of work (“I” statement), and know that the sink is empty and the dishes are put away. Can you do that for me (“I” statement)?

Solution 3:  Build a culture of appreciation.

This is a great way to ward off resentment and criticism by reminding yourself of your partner’s positive qualities and expressing gratitude for their actions. For Gottman, building a culture of appreciation, fondness, and admiration involves using the things you know about your partner to show that you care and want them to be happy. Here are some simple examples:

      • Smile at each other
      • Express warmth and affection
      • Exchange tender touch
      • Kiss one another passionately
      • Give heartfelt compliments
      • Share silly and/or romantic poems
      • Ask, “What can I do today to make you feel more loved?”

Find ways throughout your day to validate and affirm your partner. These small actions can heal and restore companionship in your relationship. Building a culture of appreciation provides the ideal conditions for your relationship to grow and thrive.


Conflict is a normal part of healthy relationships. However, how you manage conflict in your relationship significantly impacts your relationship’s success. If the Four Horsemen interfere with communication in your relationship, it signals a growing and serious problem.  It’s essential to be mindful of them and work to counteract their corrosive and destructive power as quickly as possible.

Do you need relationship help?

Regardless of the challenges in your relationship, I want you to feel empowered with the tools and skills you need to free yourself from those old destructive conversations and enjoy a more secure and lasting bond for life! You can learn more about couples therapy by clicking here.

If you want a clear path to intimacy, I would love to be your guide. Contact me today to learn how couples therapy can help.




About the Author

Picture of Steve Cuffari

Steve Cuffari

For over 20 years, Steve Cuffari has been an ordained minister, assistant college professor of psychology at vanguard university, and a therapist committed to helping individuals, couples, and educators learn how to put an end to destructive conversations so they can build secure and lasting relationships... More about Steve →


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