Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Healthy Miscommunication

We miscommunicate more than we communicate.

Healthy Miscommunication

Unhealthy communication between couples has been shown by research to predict marital distress, divorce, domestic violence, and physical ill-health. It has also been associated with behavioral and emotional problems in children. Our biggest misconception about communication is that we think we're any good at it. We tend to assume we communicate well and understand clearly. We think we say exactly what we mean, and we think we hear exactly what was meant.

The truth of the matter is that even in the best of relationships with the best of communicators, we miscommunicate more than we communicate. We misunderstand more than we understand. Misunderstanding is the natural state of the world and of intimate relationships like marriage.

Miscommunication is easily the most common form of communication. We are mostly deaf and mostly blind when it comes to understanding each other. It requires patient, deliberate, and loving work to hear each other clearly and understand each other well.

It is a monumental challenge to understand ourselves and an even greater challenge to understand each other. We must learn to embrace how much we don't know about ourselves and our partners. We must practice the art of patient and curious listening to allow us to get to know each other better, even as we continue to misunderstand, change, and grow.

Eat the Blame

It is vitally important for us to take full and personal responsibility for how we communicate in our own marriage. It is also astonishingly easy to find ourselves blaming our partners for any communication issues we might be having. As personally satisfying, and maybe even true, as that kind of blame may be, it is completely worthless to us.

Believe me, if blaming our partners was an effective solution to communication issues, I would be all for it. It's easy, and it comes so naturally. Oddly enough, it so often feels like something of a relief to blame our partners. If only it were so easy.

As with all such things, the only real answers lie in the direction of courageously accepting our own responsibility, our own "ability to respond," by attending more conscientiously to our own attitudes and behavior. Without judging yourself and regarding yourself with an attitude of kindness, recognize that we all have areas we need to improve, and these are often lifelong projects.

Miscommunication Is Normal

We miscommunicate more commonly than we communicate accurately. Some level of miscommunication is a normal part of any conversation. If you think about it for only a moment, this state of affairs begins to make sense. When we have something that we want to communicate to our partner, we are first faced with the task of trying to figure out exactly what it is that we want to say, and as we all know, that task is not always easy.

The task becomes even more difficult when what we have to say is very important to us or, in some way, emotionally complicated. Somehow we have to put words to our experience, to what we want to say, and much more often than not, the words we have are at least somewhat inadequate to the task. If our partners could just crawl inside us and directly know what we mean, then we could be truly understood. Unfortunately, we are stuck with this very clumsy means of trying to package and carry our meaning across to our partners through language and words. Much gets lost in the translation.

The first words out of our mouths are often poor reflections of what we really mean to say. We might, at times, even want to take our words back and try again. But once those words have left our mouths, our partners are already responding to whatever clumsy jumble we coughed up, and we get caught up and lost in whatever that cycle of misunderstanding and confusion is that we fall into again and again.

We are rarely given the chance to try to figure out the distance between what our words meant to us and what they meant to our partners. In fact, more often than not, we don't know ourselves what we are really trying to say, and we have to hear ourselves say something before we can even begin to figure it out. Most conversations simply unfold too fast to allow us to clarify, even for ourselves, what we really mean to say. The bottom line is that starting a conversation, especially an important one, is a tricky business.

Now, add to the dilemma of how complicated it is to clearly hear what our partner is saying and translate their unique way of saying things into our unique way of hearing things with any degree of accuracy. What I mean is that even though we and our partners might technically speak the same language, all of our words mean something slightly different to each of us than to anybody else. We learn the meaning of words, both their broad meanings and subtle nuances, from our accumulated experience with them over the entire course of our lives.

Simple words, like "angry," can have strikingly different associations for some people than for others. One partner might have grown up in a household where the word "angry" was used to refer to passionate, open, but relatively civil interactions about frustrations and disappointments that were emotionally skillful, generally respectful, and always safe. Another partner might have grown up in a household where the word "angry" was used to refer to devastatingly frightening parental tantrums that were emotionally chaotic, hateful, and traumatizing.

Now, a simple statement like, "I'm angry with you," is going to mean very different things to these two partners, regardless of what it might mean to the person who said it. And people rarely clarify by saying, "Now what I mean by 'angry' is 'let's sit down and talk respectfully about how frustrated and hurt I am by your behavior,' and not 'I am about to completely lose control and say hateful and humiliating things to you.'" We are left, instead, having to infer meaning from our own unique experience.

In less exaggerated forms, this same process of accumulating different understandings of the same words happens for all of us for all words, so even though we often understand each other well enough to get by, there is a great deal of misunderstanding built directly into the system. So, despite the fact that Bob and Gina are both speaking English, Bob is really speaking "Bob-English," and Gina is translating into "Gina-English," and the translation is never perfect. Now keep in mind that Bob himself is not entirely certain what he is trying to say or what he really means, and it becomes surprising that we ever understand each other at all. If you further add to that mix any emotional upset or any competitive drive to "win" an argument rather than understand a partner, it is no wonder that miscommunication and misunderstanding are the norms and not the exception.

Step Up and Say It

Although communication is a tricky business, it is also the lifeblood of any healthy relationship. These are simply deep waters that you must dive into over and over again until you are comfortable with their challenges and able to be playful in their depths. So, you must step up and say something, and you must do it over and over again. Allow that the first words out of your mouth will be imperfect. Starting a conversation is always a rough draft, merely the beginning of something that you and your partner will shape together. You might think of beginning a conversation as coming together with your partner around an unformed block of clay and then beginning to work together to shape a clear and shared understanding between you.

A healthy marriage simply requires that we maintain an ongoing conversation with our partners. Some of that talk is the regular chitchat of everyday life, and some of that talk is about the most important things that need to be said and understood. We have to say something, even though what we say might not be perfect.

Unfortunately, when couples begin having real trouble in their marriage, they often stop talking completely. As the health of their marriage begins to deteriorate, they find that the difficulty they have communicating with each other makes the whole process feel like more trouble than it's worth. Each time an effort to communicate becomes hopelessly stuck in a pattern of miscommunication, the partners become more reluctant to try again.

However, given that healthy marriages require healthy communication, unhealthy marriages are in even greater need of patient and deliberate talk. Ultimately, we can't stop talking to each other just because the process is difficult. We have to step up and say something.

As we come to accept the fact that communication is a tricky business, we are likely to be more forgiving of the awkward process of stumbling around trying to figure out what we mean and how to say it. When we accept that the first words out of our partners' mouths are only poor approximations of what they ultimately mean to say, then we are more likely to give them the space that they need to figure out what they mean and how to say it. We're also less likely to react to our first misinterpretation as if it were 100 percent accurate.

The bottom line is that it is infinitely better to start an imperfect conversation knowing that it is imperfect than to either avoid talking to each other at all or to assume that miscommunication is rare.

More from James V. Cordova Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today