10 Communication Patterns That Hurt Relationships
Written by: Marcy Cole, LCSW, PhD
Updated: August 23, 2021
We don’t “just know” how to talk to our partners. In any intimate relationship, we need to learn how to communicate, says psychotherapist Marcy Cole, PhD, who has coached couples for more than twenty years.
The ability to effectively identify, articulate, and respond to feelings is what Cole defines as interpersonal IQ. She’s found that there are ten communication patterns that can hurt our interpersonal IQ and the emotional intimacy in a relationship, and for each one, she’s come up with a process to flip the script.
Interpersonal IQ and Communication Tools for Committed Couples
The term “interpersonal IQ” came to me during a conversation, without any prior knowledge of its existence. As I saw it, IPIQ is the level of one’s capacity to clearly hear, understand, and effectively communicate and fully interact with another person. It takes the quality of emotional intelligence (EQ), a term coined by Daniel Goleman, a step further into the realm of translating thoughts, feelings, and intentions for the purpose of connecting with others in a meaningful way.
Later I realized that this concept was not an original one, as inspired downloads rarely are. Howard Gardner, in his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, proposed a model consisting of eight criteria of intelligence. One of them was interpersonal intelligence, which he defined as how you understand, motivate, lead, work with, and cooperate with others.
Developing IPIQ is important for optimal living because it goes beyond EQ into the interpersonal arena. It’s communication that makes that connection happen. Words can hurt or heal. They can put you down or promote. They can push you away or pull you close. They can let you down or lift you up. This is true in any relational domain: community, collegial, family, friendship, or romantic.
Developing IPIQ is also crucial for committed relationships to succeed. The term “love” is rooted in the Sanskrit lubhyati, which means desire. Humans have a natural desire to love and be loved. Romantic partnerships are just one of the many types of significant relationships in our lives. The urge to fall in love is a primal biological drive, like hunger and sex. It is on this intimacy front where we so often play out most of our experiences or unmet issues with attachment and loss. Within this field, so much can get triggered, and even more can be healed.
What I know about developing interpersonal IQ in relationships is informed by my professional work with couples as well as my own personal experiences. I’ve identified ten perceptual communication patterns—or love breakers—that stunt, separate, and destroy intimacy. And on the flip side, there are ten love-making prescriptions to boost your IPIQ and the quality of your relationship.
As you read through these examples of habitual patterns, reflect on the love-breaking patterns that have been active in your relationship. Then consider applying the love-making language recommendations to transform those sabotaging patterns into a deeper sense of connection. Read these with your partner or share at least one nugget with them.
10 Prescriptions for Love-Breaking Patterns
1: The Blame Game
• “You always…”
• “You never…”
• “You’re the one who…”
• “I can’t believe you…”
• “Why didn’t you…”
• “It’s your fault!”
• “You’re wrong.”
• “You’re impossible.”
• “You make me so…”
• “You’re crazy.”
Results in: defensiveness, disdain, mistrust, withholding, ghosting, and plummeting intimacy.
Love-Making Prescription: Fix the Problem, Not the Blame
Replace blame with the benefit of the doubt. Studies have shown that in new love, neural pathway circuits of social judgment are suppressed. Do you recall being blamed or blaming as you were falling in love? Likely not. Make a conscious choice to give your partner the benefit of the doubt, let go of quick judgments, and try not to take things personally.
Try mindful reflection. When you are blaming your partner for something, pause and ask yourself, “How big do I really want to make this?” Most things we fret over in life are either an illusion or insignificant. If you deem it important, then there are effective ways to communicate without bashing each other.
Try the boomerang back exercise. One of the most important coping strategies in Dr. Phil’s book Relationship Rescue is refocusing your attention on what you are responsible for and in control of. When pointing a finger at your partner, try bringing it back to you, not as a way to self-berate but to regain self-focus, composure, and insight. You may find that you are experiencing the “shadow effect”: What you are blaming your partner for is actually something you judge yourself harshly for and try to avoid. What gets under our skin and causes us to overreact is often something we may not want to see or cannot tolerate in ourselves.
Do the soft eyes/aha exercise. The next time you find yourself in a gridlock of blame and defensive responses, here’s an active-listening dialogue technique that helps bust through misunderstandings and elicit reconnection. Rather than debating who is right or wrong, each person shares—uninterrupted—what the conflictual event sounded, looked, and felt like to them. The only purpose is to listen to each other by standing in your partner’s shoes. What inevitably happens is that an expression of anger, disappointment, or frustration turns into “soft eyes” as the person listening has an aha moment of understanding what they previously misunderstood. Choosing to reunite instead of being right is more fulfilling than the stubborn standstill of mutual misery.
Employ the power of apology. With relationship conflict, the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. The power of ownership goes a very long way toward forgiveness, acceptance, and healing. Rather than waiting for your partner to apologize, go first, saying, “I’m so sorry for my part in….” While you can hope for mutual reflection and ownership, stay in your lane and let go of the expectation that your partner will apologize next. If it comes, which it often does, great. If not, then at least you can stand steady, in peace and with a clear conscience.
Ask rather than assuming. Most conflict comes from misunderstanding and misguided assumptions. During one couple’s session, a woman was expressing dissatisfaction that she didn’t hear from her boyfriend enough when he was away on business, and she assumed, “If I were important enough to you, you would call more often.” He nicely said, “When you do not hear from me, please think the best of me.” He went on to explain why he wasn’t able to call frequently, which was quite different from her fearful assumption. The next time you find yourself jumping to conclusions, try pausing and expressing something like “I’d like to get clarity” or “I’d like to check in and clear something up together.” This is similar to choosing a perception that assumes innocence versus guilt.
Use the AMOR method. People are often afraid to speak their truth for fear of confrontation. Being confrontational carries a negative association—the idea that sharing feelings or requests directly may just bring more conflict, rejection, judgment, or abandonment. Fixing the problem usually entails having conversations that can feel hard. This method is helpful when confronting that which deserves acknowledgement:
Affirm: Begin with a positive, such as “I know you love me and never want to see me unhappy, which I appreciate so much.”
Message: Share what may be difficult to say and hear: “Sometimes I want to talk with you and have you listen without telling me what I should do or how I should feel. When that happens, I just shut down.”
Overcome: “If you could just listen, hold me sometimes if I need it, and let me know that you hear me and understand, that would feel so good and help us overcome this pattern so that we can feel even closer.”
Resolution, redemption, renewal: When you can convey feelings that were previously difficult to share or convey an intimidating request for a change in behavior, this method will help your partner listen without feeling threatened or blamed and set you both up for greater success in understanding and connecting with one another.
Results in: increased intimacy and heightened humility, understanding, compassion, forgiveness, empathy, and growth.
2: The Scoreboard Playing Field
• “I did this for you; what have you done for me lately?”
• “I picked up our son three times last week!”
• “I always…”
• “You never…”
Results in: a distorted field of winners and losers, resentment, and competition.
Love-Making Prescription: Give-Give to Win-Win
We are both givers. Relationships where there is a distinct or perceived giver-taker dynamic rarely flourish. When both focus on being a giver, then no one feels depleted or taken advantage of. Instead, both feel deep appreciation for the other and greater joy in the experience of giving and receiving. This will help reset your relationship to a higher frequency of romance and sex appeal, and deeper intimacy.
Replace gripes over what isn’t with gratitude for what is. Rather than measuring who is giving or receiving more, ask, “What would love do?” There is magic in this inquiry. Listen, share, and watch what happens.
Ask: “What can I do for you?” A dear friend of mine ends her voicemail message that way. I remember hearing it for the first time and feeling automatically grateful.
Express gratitude. What you focus on will expand: “Thank you so much for checking in with me quickly.” “It always feels good to hear a sweet something from you!” “Have I told you lately how special you are and how special you are to me?”
Request versus demand. Isn’t it amazing how you can say the same thing in two delivery styles and reach completely different outcomes? Consider asking versus expecting or demanding that your partner change: “When you frequently come home late, I feel unimportant, like an afterthought. I would really appreciate the gift of you arriving on time more often. When you do, I feel that you are considering my feelings and schedule and keeping your word. That helps set the tone for enjoying our evening together.”
Results in: an endorphin boost for the partnership and a reemergence of deep appreciation.
3: The Bore of the Bubble
• “We never do anything!”
• “Why can’t you ever go with me to…”
• “You’re a couch potato.”
• “Can’t we go someplace new for once?”
Results in: frustration, boredom, inertia, indifference, distraction, and decreased desire.
Love-Making Prescription: Keep It Fluid, Keep It Flowing
The world is our bubble. In our fast-paced world, it’s easy get insulated and isolated. Part of expanding your lens and experience with your partner is to remember that there is a big wide world outside of the small radius in which most of us live. Recognize yourselves as global citizens and set a collective intention to connect more with your communities near and far.
Date nights are golden. One of the first things I ask the couples I work with is if they carve out date nights as they satisfy all the other commitments and desires in their lives. It always astounds me how few do, given that it is through quality time, shared experiences, and fun surprises that most relationships begin.
• “Hey, I’d love your company.”
• “I’ve got a surprise for you.”
• “Let’s take a trip together.”
• “Let’s RSVP to that party and meet some new people.”
• “Let’s travel someplace we’ve never been.”
• “How about we volunteer for this event?”
Results in: marvelous discoveries to replace the mundane; curiosity about new things; anticipatory excitement; greater laughter, fun, and connection; a nourished and revitalized relationship.
4: The “My Way or the Highway” Mind-Set
• “I want to do this.”
• “We should do that.”
• “You’re wrong!”
• “That’s not the way it is.”
Results in: loss of self and feeling flat, resentful, and disconnected.
Love-Making Prescription: From “Me” to “We”
Move from “I”-centered to “we”-focused. Let go of a fixed mind-set and embrace a growth mind-set. You compromise until both are satisfied. Partnering requires integration and often concessions. Satisfaction does not always mean one or both parties get their way.
Create joyful integration. My friend and confidence coach Susan Leahy often iterates the mind-set “You deserve to be happy, and I deserve to be happy,” and who can argue with that?
• “What would you like to do?
• “How about we do both?”
• “How about you do that, and I’ll do this, and then we’ll meet up later?”
Anchoring statements and agreements is a powerful articulation practice that Leahy suggests. The idea is to cocreate values and visions that you both desire in your relationship. An example could be: “We are a couple who respect, admire, and deeply love each other. We choose to grow individually and collectively and enjoy a great life together.”
Results in: a sense of coupledom, union, balance, and well-being.
5: Scar Tissue
• “You always do this.”
• “There you go again.”
• “You never apologized for…”
Results in: consistent reinjury due to a focus on past cumulative hurts, disappointments, and resentments; an avoidant attachment and communication style; and suppressing the truth of one’s feelings, experiences, and desires.
Love-Making Prescription: Mindful Presence
Stay present. Overreactions in relationships are often projections of past trauma into the present moment and onto our current partner. These projections can be sourced from childhood, past relationships, or an earlier time in your present relationship. Once you become aware of how this can hijack your relationship, you can choose to adopt a beginner’s mind-set. From this mind-set, you can relate to each other with curiosity and inquiry.
• “I am here with you now.”
• “I want to understand.”
• “Who are you today, and what have you learned from your past experience?”
• “What do you desire now?”
• “What can I say or do to make things feel better for you?”
Results in: gained insight, healing projections of old patterns from childhood or past relationships, and greater joy in the now.
6: The Roommate Rut
• “I don’t care.”
• “I’m sorry, again.”
• “I forgot.”
Results in: a rote, passive, and disconnected life.
Love-Making Prescription: Wake Up, Remember, Re-Romance
Plug in versus tune out. Many of us are sleepwalking through life, and that includes becoming numb to your relationship, making it hard to see and hear this person you chose. The reset here is not an imposition but rather an invitation to tune in to what originally attracted you to each other, to get out of the same patterns of everyday life, and to share more of yourself.
• “Remember when…”
• “I’d like to invite you to…”
• “I miss doing things with you and would love to do something together again.”
• “I love it when you…”
• “Let’s plan a date night.”
Results in: stimulation; increased sensuality and sexual intimacy; a renewed focus on fun; and a reprioritized partnership.
7: Sameness Is Closeness
• “You say yes, too, correct?”
• “You agree with me, right?”
• “I can’t believe you don’t want to do this.”
Results in: other-directed versus self-directed orientaton, inauthentic attachments, and an unsustainable connection and intimacy.
Love-Making Prescription: It Takes Two to Tango
Be who you are. While sometimes it feels good to hear what you want to hear, people ultimately want authenticity in partnerships. This requires you to be your own person, not a pleaser. Pleasers self-abandon and then inevitably feel abandoned by others who never had access to the truth of who they are. When you are true to yourself, you are always found, never lost, especially to yourself, which is the most appealing thing to your partner.
Accept, celebrate, and enjoy your differences. There is some truth within many generalizations, including the notion that opposites attract. You don’t need to pursue your carbon copy because you are already taken, beautifully and thankfully.
The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman discusses an important variable regarding how we give and receive love. To have a thriving relationship, it’s important to share clearly what is meaningful to you and to understand what’s meaningful to your partner. If you love each other deeply, have enough shared vision and common ground, and are committed to staying and growing together, these differences can enhance your growth individually and collectively, intensifying your attraction to each another.
Remember that you are both evolving beings. Even if you once shared a perspective or dream in common, we are not stagnant or stuck in time. Our inner lives, if we choose to be awake and aware, are always expanding. You deserve to leave room for this change and growth for yourself and your partner.
Check in with each other frequently to tune in and to share questions like:
• “How do you feel?”
• “What do you want?”
• “Who are you now?”
When not on the same page:
• “It’s okay—we can agree to disagree.”
• “It’s such a turn-on watching you do your thing your way.”
• “Thank you for exposing me to this and opening my mind to it.”
• “What can I do or say that makes you feel the most loved and appreciated?”
Results in: heightened attunement, acceptance, appreciation, respect, and intimacy.
8: The “You Complete Me” Mentality
• “No one will ever love you like I do.”
• “You are my everything.”
• “I’d be lost without you.”
Results in: enmeshed codependency, loss of self, and potential to fall from grace.
Love-Making Prescription: You Complement Me
Have healthy reliance versus debilitating dependence. This has been a common topic of discussion with many of my clients, exploring the fine line between enjoying your partner’s companionship and leaning on them for support versus forming a dependency on them to fill you up or pick you up. With this shift in perspective, your partner can enhance your happiness but no longer defines it.
Finding your collective purpose as greater than the sum of two parts. When a relationship between two people is linear, it can feel stale, vapid, and smothering. The Kabbalistic and Christian traditions use the triangle symbol to connect many different entities, such as the divine masculine, divine feminine, and gateway to the divine source of all living things. The Buddhist triangle symbolizes the invocation of love, and many other traditions use the symbolism of this sacred geometry. In visualizing this metaphorical shape, imagine yourself on a solid foundation on one bottom corner of the triangle, with your partner on the other side; both positions are supported by the top peak, which brought you together, whole and complete, so that you could individually and collectively contribute and create something wonderful.
• “Thank you for enhancing my life.”
• “I learn so much from and with you.”
• “We are a great team.”
Results in: feeling whole within yourself and even better together.
9: Lack Versus Lust
• “Maybe you can put on some makeup before we go out?”
• “Time to hit the gym.”
• “Why haven’t you earned a raise lately?”
• “I wish you would…”
Results in: killing joy, trust, and passion.
Love-Making Prescription: Positive Reflection and Reinforcements
Focus on what is versus what is not. This shift is empowering to our psyche and nurturing to our heart. When you first fell in love, it is likely that you noticed and fed the well of beauty, brilliance, and potential in the other. You celebrated each other.
Love is a verb and a practice. Write down what attracted you to your partner (whether it was physical, or their personality, behavior, or lifestyle, or the chemistry between you, etc.). Set a mindful intention to share some of this every day. You can express this through verbal expression, love notes of appreciation, physical affection, acts of service, and anything else that will make them smile. Focus on the good, without expectation. It will likely be returned, but regardless, you deserve to fully express the truth of your heart. Practice patience in resetting the old pattern and remember to shower yourself with the same recognition.
Activate a respectful process for behavior-change requests. When there is something lacking that deserves recognition and attention, a respectful and constructive delivery style will be key to bringing about a positive outcome. The Behavior Change Request Dialogue, developed by Harville Hendrix, is a good overview of the process to practice.
• “You’re beautiful the way you are.”
• “Thank you so much for all you do for our family.”
• “I was thinking today of how and why I fell in love with you.”
• “I appreciate you.”
• “Thank you for…”
• “I’d like to request to speak with you about something. Is now a good time?”
Results in: the return of lust.
10: Exit Threats
• “If you do that one more time, I’m divorcing you.”
• “I can’t take this anymore.”
• “I’ve had it. I’m done.”
• “Fine, then just leave.”
Results in: uncertainty, anxiety, insecurity, hostility, and relationship instability.
Love-Making Prescription: Staying Power
Engage versus exit. Redirecting the patterns of your past require actively reinforcing your commitment. Fear of rejection and loss keep people from connection and staying connected.
Get help versus bailing. Consider investing in professional support before you consider splitting. As a couple’s therapist for over twenty years, one thing I know is that whether you remain together, coparent, or amicably part ways, it will serve you both in the short and long run.
• “I’m here to stay.”
• “I’m not going anywhere.”
• “I know we can get past this.”
• “I’m here when you are ready to discuss.”
• “I’d really like to move forward together and learn from what hasn’t worked so that we can learn what can.”
• “I’m sorry I threatened to leave. Let’s get the help we need to explore how we can find ways to heal this and stay together.”
Results in: the motivation to resolve problems, a return to a semblance of safety, and the emergence of growth potential.
Marcy Cole, PhD, is a holistic psychotherapist, author, and speaker. She has a private practice, seeing adults, couples, and families. She also produces live events through the Los Angeles chapter of First Tuesday, a platform for women, fostering social connectivity and professional networking. Cole founded another online platform for women without children, Childless Mothers Connect. She also works at the John Thomas Dye School in Bel Air as the social and emotional program facilitator for students, faculty, and parents.