8 signs you're not communicating well with your significant other—and how to fix it
If you’re a pro at relationships (and, of course, you are) you probably know by now that communication is the key to absolute happiness. But even in relationships that seem fine, sometimes there are hidden signs that you’re not communicating well with each other.
According to clinical psychologist and author of Joy from Fear, Dr. Carla Marie Manly, so much of our behavior is the result of learning from our parents and caregivers. “From a very young age, we unconsciously watch—and mimic—behavior modeled by others. In the same way, the communication patterns modeled in other life areas—whether at school, watching movies, etc.—is absorbed,” she tells HelloGiggles. “Unfortunately, many adults do not have very good communication skills and, as a result, negative patterns are learned and carried into adult relationships.”
There’s also a chance that you can be communicating way better than you currently are. If you’re having a ton of screaming fights, or are still upset that your boyfriend didn’t get you anything other than a generic box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day, this could very well be you. Just because a relationship isn’t a total disaster doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved.
Here are some signs that you might be falling into the bad communication trap.
1Your texting ratio is off, and borderline sad.
Every person has their own texting style. But since texts are often the source of miscommunication problems (yes, even with emojis), they need to be examined a bit. Do you send your partner 15 texts and only get an “okay” in response? Do you ask them to check in with you through text when he’s reached a destination but know they’ll totally forget? Well then, your texting style isn’t compatible, which can lead to a lot of unnecessary hurt.
So, what can you do? Dr. Manly suggests texting your partner sparingly. “Texting is often devoid of emotional context and can easily be misinterpreted. I recommend that couples avoid texting except for brief check-ins. [It’s] terrific for quick reminders of appointments, brief ‘I am running late’ messages, and connective ‘I love you’ check-ins,” she says. “Other communication—particularly if it’s of a sensitive nature—is best done in person or, as a back-up, via phone.”
But if this is something that really bothers you, it’s important to tactfully voice your opinion. Tell your partner, kindly, that it hurts when they don’t respond immediately because they might have no idea. Then, listen to them and figure out why you’re getting ignored. It’s probably unintentional. Remember, not everyone is attached to their phones. From there, work on a compromise.
2Your last birthday was a total disappointment, but you’re afraid to tell your partner that.
Congrats, you finally turned 30! It’s a scary year ahead, but the day itself was made of nightmares. Your S.O. didn’t take you anywhere and barely acknowledged it. You’ve been together for a year — they should have known better, right? Of course, bringing it up to them will only lead to a fight, so why bother.
Your partner can’t read your mind. Birthdays mean different things to different people, so it’s possible that you didn’t communicate the fact that you were expecting something bigger. As far as bringing it up, you should never feel silenced in your own relationship. “The best way to address any such issue is by using an ‘I’ message that includes a ‘fix.’ It’s also important to avoid any blaming or shaming,” says Dr. Manly. “For example, if a significant other missed your birthday, you could say, ‘I so appreciate when we celebrate important days together. I want you to know that I felt hurt when you missed my birthday. I realize it probably was not intentional, but I’d really appreciate it if we could create a do-over so that we can celebrate my birthday. This would make me feel so loved and important.’”
Not being able to talk about a certain thing is a huge red flag that the relationship is heading nowhere. Your emotions matter, and the problem will never be fixed if you refuse to speak up about it.
3Your diary has gotten a lot of action recently.
Don’t get us wrong, a diary is a wonderful thing to have. Journaling your feelings can be totally therapeutic, and more people should give it a go. But there’s a common theme with using a journal—when you first start, you normally detail every life event. Then? Life takes over, and entries peter out a bit.
If yours is in reverse, and you notice yourself writing lengthy chapters on a nightly basis, it could be because you can’t vent your feelings, uninterrupted, to your partner. Pretty soon, you might be telling your diary absolutely everything and your significant other next to nothing. This isn’t super healthy. According to Dr. Manly, this can occur in relationships when people believe that honest communications will yield negative results. “Depending on one’s childhood experiences and relationship experiences, this fear may be a valid one. It’s important to be aware of these fears to create greater self-awareness and growth,” she says. “Thus, rather than letting the fear get in the way of good communication, you can simply acknowledge the fear and still persevere to communicate your truth.”
4You know they will explode over certain topics.
If you ask them how their job is, they go from zero to ten. So, you better not ask, right?
Well, yes and no. You know it’s a sore subject, so it’s nothing you want to poke. But at the same time, it’s an important topic that your partner needs to be somewhat open about, especially if the two of you share finances. Work occupies most of your day, so if you don’t share it with each other? Kind of weird.
When people keep a huge part of themselves closed off, it leads to resentment. That, or perhaps you’ll wonder what they’re hiding. Either way, a person who explodes over a particular subject is simply being abusive. “The strategy of exploding in anger is often a learned defense mechanism that it created to make the explosive person feel safe. However, the explosive person then gets ‘locked’ inside the jail cell of anger while the partner is left alone outside,” says Dr. Manly. “If left unaddressed, the explosive person tends to become more explosive over time and the partner is often left feeling increasing edgy, depressed, anxious, and isolated.” This in the long run, can lead to even more unhealthy behavioral patterns, so it’s best to nip it in the bud before things get worse.
5 They can’t remember details about your life.
If you’ve been dating for longer than six months, your partner should know what you do for a living—even if they don’t totally grasp what it entails. They should also know if you have any siblings, and what the name of your best friend is. These are all topics that come up naturally during everyday conversation, and if they’re still somewhat hazy, they’re not paying attention.
We all have slip-ups and brain fogs sometimes, but if these things keep happening, just realize that your significant other is potentially tuning you out. According to Dr. Manly, if a partner has a hard time remembering important dates or facts, they could be self-absorbed, highly distracted, or not truly invested in the relationship. “However, it’s important to objectively look a partner’s behavior over time to see which pattern—or combination of patterns—are at work,” she continues. Figure out why, and how to communicate more effectively, since this will definitely lead to a fight somewhere down the line.
6Fights always end in tears.
There can be a lot of reasons for this, but communication is a big one. When you reach the level of tears, things are usually at a point of no return. “Screaming matches occur when emotionally dysregulated partners feel frustrated and unheard. As a result of feeling unheard—and not knowing how to communicate effectively about their needs—such partners resort to yelling and screaming at each other,” says Dr. Manly. “Sadly, neither partner is heard by the other partner, and the unfiltered words and raw emotions tend to create chaos and harm.”
A lot of times, fights happen because you expect your significant other to do X, but they end up doing Y instead. You wonder why they didn’t do X—you mean, you talked about X for days—but instead, your partner went to Y. And rather than bringing it up now, you let it build up in your brain.
To a point where, when you finally bring it up, you’re totally heated.
Taken aback, they respond a little too defensively. And suddenly, you’re screaming at each other about something totally different, like who did the laundry last. Pro tip: Don’t do this. Instead, use a technique known as “reflective listening” (aka “mirroring”). “In this technique, partners learn to repeat (mirror) what the other person said without editorializing. The listener and speaker roles are swapped until each person is ‘heard,'” says Dr. Manly. “As well, for those who tend to get very angry, it’s important to learn emotional regulation and to take ‘time outs’ to cool down if emotions begin to run high.”
Your significant other should be your teammate. You’re both navigating this relationship together. If you feel like they’re your opponent, you need to break it off. Otherwise, you need to work on ways to communicate your wants and needs better to each other. Make sure you start off calm.
7You don’t want to talk to your partner about big news.
Whether it’s good, bad, or somewhere-in-between news, you know you probably aren’t going to get the reaction you want. If something huge happens, your partner won’t understand why it’s a big deal. Or, if something small (yet upsetting) occurs, you know they won’t really give you the hug you need. Instead, it’ll be a shrug. Or worse, a lecture.
Couplehood is all about sharing. If you don’t share, you start keeping secrets. And if you keep too many secrets, suddenly you’ve built a life away from your significant other. To avoid this from happening, you should tell them how you best handle reactions and signs of love and appreciation—in fact, that’s kind of the whole basis around “love languages,” which is a concept that’s truly not as ridiculous as you might assume.
But before you talk, pause to think about what you really want. “Often we don’t know what we want and, even if we do, we are afraid to ask for it. This sets up the partner for a guessing game—and this often creates stress and discord,” says Dr. Manly. “So, if a partner is hoping for a certain reaction, it’s important to know that and state it.”
While it might sound daunting, just remember that your boyfriend or girlfriend should always be your biggest cheerleader and sense of support. “For example, if a partner wants to be celebrated for a great work achievement, he might say, ‘I’d really feel great if we could celebrate my promotion at work. Would you be willing to make a home-cooked dinner for me to celebrate? It would mean a lot to me,'” says Dr. Manly. “Yes, this brings a level of vulnerability into the relationship, but it also creates a delightful opportunity for having one’s preferences noted while allowing the partner to meet such wonderfully reasonable needs and hopes.”
8Most of your interactions happen electronically.
You communicate through text throughout the day. Then you get home and stare at your phones. Then, you go to bed. Sounds familiar?
Technology is a great way to keep in touch, and drop someone a line, but you don’t want to kill off face-to-face interactions. “As animals, we are hardwired to thrive with face-to-face communication. When we are able to see a partner’s face—to see gestures, posture, eyes, and facial expressions—we feel connected. And when we feel connected, we feel loved and safe,” says Dr. Manly. “Ongoing face-to-face interactions that allow for honest, caring communication are essential for a healthy, loving, bonded relationship.”
If you’ve noticed that date nights are awkward (since you haven’t actually stared into your partner’s eyes in a long time) there’s a lot of room for improvement in the way you two communicate. If you get back into the practice, you’ll realize how fulfilling it truly is.