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3 Communication Styles That Poison Relationships

Sarcasm is a jab, and passive aggression a retaliation.

Key points

  • Awareness of your own feelings and your partner's feelings are the keys to a healthy relationship.
  • If a partner doesn't own their feelings and expresses them sideways, it undermines trust and communication.
  • Expressing your feelings with direct honesty and compassion can lead to a long and healthy bond.

Probably the single-most-important contribution you can make to your relationship is to be aware of your own feelings. The second-most-important contribution you can make is being aware of your partner’s feelings.

To say that each of these skills is vital to the health and happiness of a couple is by far an understatement.

I’m hurt.

My wife is disappointed.

I’m angry.

My partner is feeling overwhelmed.

Even if you are aware of the feelings in your relationship, like the ones above, what are you supposed you do with that knowledge?

This is where communication skills enter the picture.

How do you tell your partner that they made you angry? That they hurt your feelings? How do you let your partner know that you need something from them? Most people have no way to know what couples therapists know: The way you communicate a difficult message is even more important than the message itself.

Let’s spend a minute looking at what unsuccessful communication looks like.

Examples of Ineffective Communication

Mark is hurt and angry because Beth ignored him at a party, even after he asked her to stick with him since he didn’t know anyone.

  1. Passive-aggressive: “I’ll show her how it feels. I’ll ignore her at my work party next week,” Mark decides.
  2. Aggressive: Mark walks up to Beth during the party and says quietly, but in an enraged tone, “You are so self-centered! I’m never going to another party with you again.”
  3. Sarcastic: As soon as Beth gets into the car to drive home, Mark says angrily, “Well, I hope you had fun at that party because I sure didn’t.”


Passive-aggressive actions are actually not so much communication as retaliation. Mark thinks his tit-for-tat approach will teach Beth a lesson, but it will not.

When Mark ignores Beth at his work party one week later, chances are high that Beth will never connect Mark’s party behavior to her own. But, even if she does, she will resent him for it.

Passive aggression is essentially trying to make a right out of two wrongs, but over time this method simply weighs down the relationship with negativity.


In the aggressive example, Mark communicates in an accusing and attacking way, and his timing to do so is poor. His words, tone, and choice to speak his mind during the party all ensure that Beth will not want to do anything to fix the problem. Instead, she will feel attacked, hurt, and possibly embarrassed. Mark’s needs will, unfortunately, be even further thwarted.


In the sarcastic example, Mark waits until it’s too late for Beth to fix the problem in the moment by changing her behavior. He does not communicate his feelings directly or with care.

Sarcasm is like a jab that comes at you from the side. Beth will feel accused and attacked, and her defenses will immediately rise. And once Beth’s defenses are up, Mark’s message is lost.

The Worst Thing About Ineffective Communication

If you recognize even just a little bit of yourself or your partner in these examples, you can safely conclude that one or both of you did not learn effective communication skills in your childhood home.

As a therapist who specializes in the effects of childhood emotional neglect, I do see that, without a doubt, the communication of many, many couples is affected greatly by the way emotions were addressed in their childhood homes.

Some families address the feelings of their members openly and directly and display comfort with discussing problems and emotions. Others are deeply uncomfortable, or completely unaware of, the feelings of their members. These emotionally neglectful families fail to teach their children the vital emotion communication skills they will need to have a happy marriage.

If you or your partner grew up in an emotionally neglectful family, there is a high likelihood that your marriage is being held back by a lack of communication skills. In addition to being frustrating and divisive, there is one more less-recognized negative result of ineffective communication: Your messages, your feelings, and your needs go unheard. So, they will likely not be fulfilled.

Examples of Good Communication Skills

Mark is hurt and angry because Beth ignored him at a party, even after he asked her to stick with him since he didn’t know anyone.

  1. Mark puts his hand on Beth’s shoulder at the party and whispers into her ear, “Remember, I don’t know anyone here. Don’t forget to stick with me.”
  2. Mark waits until they are driving home and then says, “I thought we were going to stick together at the party tonight, Beth. What happened?”

In the first example, Mark communicates perfectly. He expresses his needs to Beth while they are still at the party, which allows her to fix the problem in real time. He does it in a nonblaming way by simply reminding her. In this way, he is not only giving her the benefit of the doubt (that she’s not purposely ignoring him), but he also reminds her in a way that will make her want to solve the problem.

In the second example, Beth does not have the opportunity to fix the problem at the party. But Mark is still communicating in a nonblaming, nonaggressive way.

Asking questions is an excellent way to avoid accusing the other person. It also gives your partner a chance to explain themselves. And it opens the problem up for conversation, as opposed to setting up an automatic angry or defensive clash. Because, as I said before, the second your partner’s defenses are up, you have lost their ability to attend to your feelings or needs.

The Best Thing About Effective Communication

When it comes to good communication skills, there are many advantages. Not only do they help you be honest with each other, but they also enable you to constantly get to know each other better, even if you have been together for 20 years.

And, just like poor skills, there is one more thing that most people forget about: When you say things in the right way so that your partner can hear them, you have the opportunity to get what you want and need.

If you or your partner grew up in an emotionally neglectful family and did not have the opportunity to learn these skills, it’s important to realize that it’s never too late. As long as you are capable of learning, you can develop them.

Then, you’ll be able to teach them to your children, too.

© Copyright Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

Facebook image: GaudiLab/Shutterstock


To determine wether you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You'll find the link in my Bio.

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