“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place” - George Bernard Shaw

As many of us know, good communication is the key to successful and well adjusted relationships. It involves sharing information, conveying ideas, and giving up some of our inner world. Sounds simple enough, right?

Unfortunately, it would seem that truly effective communication can be as rare as the kids doing their homework without complaint! So how do we know that our communication is bad? How do we improve our communication?

Examine Your Communication System

Part 1 of this blog post will cover examples of poor communication. We need to first examine our current pattern of communication before we can improve it. Take a look at the following list taken from marriagemate.com and see if any of these faulty styles apply to you and your relationship.

Chicago Counseling Couples ©
  • Holding back on sharing feelings
  • Avoiding conflict
  • Superficial listening
  • Avoiding sensitive areas
  • Withholding important information
  • Veiled comments
  • Using another family member as a go-between
  • Getting family news second-hand
  • Lying about anything
  • A closed attitude
  • Refusing to respond or make the first move

Harsh Start-up

Now let’s take a look at some additional areas. John Gottman is a researcher and healthy marriage extraordinaire  that discovered several key areas of faulty communication with serious consequences. The first is the “harsh start-up”, which can be described as opening or starting a conversation with an energy filled, negative or critical remark. In other words, starting into a conversation in a heated tone with biting language. For example, “YOU said you were going to take out the trash today! I can’t depend on you.”, or “Here we go again. How about I just pick it up since I’m the only one who cares enough to do it.”

Any memories of recent spousal interactions surfacing for you? The biggest problem with a harsh start-up is the veiled, or maybe not so veiled, criticism of the other person. It ignites arguments and puts down the spouse you vowed to cherish all those years ago. Harsh start-up fosters your partner’s resentment for you. It doesn’t allow for closeness and growth.

Walking Away

The flip side of the harsh start-up is walking away, or “Stonewalling”. Stonewalling is another Gottman term that describes when someone attempts to put an end to a conversation by walking away. This action is an equal offender in creating distance between you and your partner. It sends a multitude of negative messages, such as: “I’ve given  up.”, “I don’t care enough to fight for us.”, and “Go away. I am unwilling to engage in this.”

Now some might say that it is necessary to walk away from heated arguments at times. I agree! There are times for setting and communicating appropriate boundaries, which I will discuss in a later blog. Stonewalling, or walking away during an argument, flows into an overall pattern of not sharing how you feel, avoiding conflict altogether, not speaking up when necessary, and not responding to your partner’s need for the conversation.

Both harsh start-up and stonewalling are referred to as two of the 4 Horseman of the Apocalypse. In other words, Gottman’s research has shown that this poor communication style is detrimental for relationships and leads to divorce.

Making “You Always” Accusations

This is another common, poor communication occurrence that causes conflict to stagnate. Making “you always” statements like “You always do this” or “You never remember” has the opposite effect of what we are really wanting. It is said out of frustration and impatience, and it is an attempt to let your spouse know how serious this matter is to you. Unfortunately, it can leave your spouse feeling powerless to make you happy, and leaves little room for improvement. It tends to ignite an unconscious, “Well I can’t do it right any way, so why even try?”

As someone close to me once said, “Always, never and forever are only God’s words.”

Improving Your Communication

In summary, the first step to improving your communication with your partner is examining the current system of communication. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are the problem areas of our communication?
  • Do we manage conflict effectively?
  • What is our pattern of argument? (What do I do? What does she/he do?)
  • In what ways are we communicating well?
  • What are our strengths as a couple?
  • How can we use these strengths to improve our communication?


About Rachael Miller

Rachael is the owner of Chicago Counseling and an experienced clinical counselor who has worked and presented locally and internationally. She works in the areas of counseling, community education, higher education, and supervision.

She is credentialed as a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, National Certified Counselor, and Pastoral Counselor. She has a holistic approach to positive health and well-being that includes the physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spirit