If any of these patterns describe you and your spouse, it’s probably time to make an appointment for couples counseling.
By Samantha Rodman Whiten
Written on Oct 29, 2023
Photo: Nicoleta Ionescu | Shutterstock
Today I discuss that old stand-by: poor communication.
This is blamed for most discord among couples, but nobody puts too fine a point on what exactly it means. In this post, you can search for your own special brand of dysfunctional communication pattern, and try to see if you can spot it coming up in interactions this week.
Here are the 4 most dysfunctional communication patterns:
1. “You suck!” versus “Me? I never do anything!”
In this tango of love, one partner attacks, criticizes, and nags, either passive-aggressively or overtly, or, for a really fun time, both. The other partner defends, minimizes, dismisses, and invalidates like it’s his job.
“Hey, when you load the dishwasher wrong like that, nothing gets clean. But whatever, do what you want.”
“I didn’t even load it. You did that. Or the baby did.”
Roots: The attacker feels that nobody listens to her (or him, but we will stick with “her” because this is the majority of what I see in counseling). She feels alone and like she has to do everything. The deflector feels that nothing he does will be right so his only recourse is pretending he did nothing at all. Both feel detached and resentful. Neither feels that they are on the same team as their partner. The attacker feels martyred and lonely, and the deflector feels the exact same way.
2. “You suck” versus “You suck worse”
In this delightful duet, each partner eviscerates the other, getting more and more nasty until someone stabs someone else, or, more likely, they divorce. Although many times they stay together, making each other miserable for eternity, because they are caught in this familiar pattern.
“You’re really a crappy dad to them, you know.”
“Maybe because I’m married to such a crap wife that I’m always miserable.”
Roots: Both may have grown up in very critical, argumentative, conflict-ridden homes, with verbal and/or physical abuse. At the current point, both feel hopeless and unloved. Fighting is often the only way the partners connect at all. Sometimes, these kinds of couples have extreme ups and downs, particularly at the start of the relationship, but over time, the downs are more frequent and the ups more sporadic or non-existent.
3. “How was your day, dear?” versus “Fine, thanks”
This couple seems to get along great on the surface. But if you listen closely, they talk about nothing of importance ever.
Their teenage daughter may just have been found smoking pot while having an orgy in the basement and they will ignore it and discuss whether they should purchase a new water heater. These are master avoiders and ignorers.
“This chicken is delicious.”
“Thanks, it’s a new recipe.”
(This conversation is taking place after the husband didn’t come home till 2 a.m. the previous night without telling his wife where he was.)
Roots: Both grew up in homes with limited emotional expression and are now uncomfortable with openly discussing topics of any emotional import. Often, this couple divorces after the kids leave for college, realizing they have had nothing to talk about with one another for years. There may also be infidelity, workaholism, or other addictive behaviors, occurring, where one or both partners divert their emotional energy outside of the marriage and there is nothing left for the relationship.
4. “You suck” versus “I’m sorry, I’ll change, don’t leave”
In this twist on the “You suck, You suck worse” pattern, one partner berates the other unidirectionally. The beratee spends most of his/her time trying to convince their partner to stick around. They often change their identity to fit what they hope their partner wants.
“Your job is headed nowhere.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. What do you think I should do instead? I could always apply elsewhere. Tonight.”
Roots: Obviously, the beratee has low self-esteem, and often was berated at home as a child as well, or saw a parent be berated, thus making him susceptible to falling into this pattern as an adult. But, the berater, surprisingly, often comes from the same sort of home but identifies more with the attacking parent, which is often a safer choice for a child (because nobody wants to emulate a victim). Now in adulthood, the berater, often despite their best intentions, finds him/herself automatically acting critical and mean as a default. The beratee doesn’t help matters by never asserting him/herself, and the vicious cycle continues ad infinitum, or until someone decides enough is enough and seeks help or leaves.
Do any of these patterns describe you and your spouse? If so, you know what I’m going to say, right? Well, first get this book: Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples, and then make your appointment for couples counseling.
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Dr. Samantha Rodman Whiten, aka Dr. Psych Mom, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and the founder of DrPsychMom. She works with adults and couples in her group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.
This article was originally published at Dr. Psych Mom. Reprinted with permission from the author.