Many couples don’t realize how their emotional intimacy is suffering from simple failures in communication. Strengthen your relationships by leaning into the most important aspect of human communication: emotions. Learn how to stop angry defensiveness, blame-shifting, and conflict avoiding.
During one of my recent couple therapy sessions, the wife, who is normally very reserved and cool, suddenly began slamming her hands on a table and shouting: “I always feel like I’m to blame and I’m not. I feel like I can’t do anything right.” I was shocked by this outburst from her, but I could see she was immediately going to calm down. I was then even more shocked by the husband’s response. He barely acknowledged her outburst at all and began talking in an emotionless manner about how he understands that she feels that way but he does not want her to feel blamed. It felt like he wasn’t even in the same room. There was a complete disconnection from her big emotions and thoughts — that she felt unfairly blamed and deeply unworthy.
This brief interaction highlights one of the granular ways all relationships can get sidetracked from building authentic emotional vulnerability and intimacy. Even though the husband’s response sounded good on the surface, it missed an opportunity to attune to and connect with his wife’s emotional experience in the moment. He didn’t respond with equal anger, which was a healthy choice, but he also did not recognize the weight of his wife’s concerns. In his intellectualized response he might have made her feel dismissed or even that her emotions were “too much” for him to handle, which could lead to feelings of self-doubt.
Relationship bonds in conversations are broken in three main ways, with some specific behaviors identified in each category:
1. Avoidant responses
- Disconnecting to avoid emotions: As in the example, many people do not stay with the emotion being expressed, perhaps because they are uncomfortable dealing with emotions in general. But this can cause the other person to feel ignored and even unworthy.
- Disconnecting to avoid conflict: People-pleasing tendencies can be helpful in avoiding and de-escalating conflict, but pervasive passivity can make a partner feel unloved and unimportant. Conflicts are not resolved in healthy ways but swept under the rug.
- Intellectualizing: Some people learn to cope with conflict by deflecting to safe topics and facts rather than important values or emotions. If conversations feel “dry,” boring, and routine, your relationship may be suffering from intellectualization.
2. Shame-based responses
- Defensiveness, anger, and emotional reactiveness: If a person cannot tolerate shame, they may resort to defensive anger when criticized or held accountable. This is probably the most common way that relationship bonds are broken. Defensive anger is very destructive because the process of guilt, remorse, contrition, and repair are essential to build a sense of safety and reciprocity in a partnership. If you or your partner do not truly feel remorse and take responsibility for yourselves when you are wrong, are less likely to actually change your behavior.
- Blame shifting: Shame sensitivity also makes people shift blame to others to avoid accountability. This serves to protect the blame-shifter from feelings of shame, but it leaves their partner with increased self-blame and self-doubt. Eventually, the victim of this form of emotional abuse becomes resentful, angry, and disconnected.
- Dominance through angry accusations: Verbally overpowering or intimidating a partner can be an effective way to ensure that they don’t ever challenge you again. But forcing a partner into submission through emotional abuse certainly will not improve the quality of your relationship.
3. Low emotional intelligence
Many people were raised in homes in which parents did not teach or model healthy social and emotional skills. If you grew up watching your parents engage in one of the above communication styles, you may unwittingly repeat it in your adult relationships. A concerning pattern is having low warmth and empathy. Humans are generally very good at reading subtle facial expressions and body language. If you tend to scowl, look anxious, have a harsh tone of voice, or have intimidating or rejecting body postures, you may inadvertently send signals of threat or discomfort that lead your partner to retreat. Many people also try to calm a partner’s “big” emotions by remaining excessively calm, but this may backfire, causing the partner to feel unseen or even judged as “too emotional.”
Build Communication Skills to Build Your Relationship Bond
Once you know your broader communication issues, such as being avoidant, shame-based, or having low warmth, some specific skills can be added, such as:
- Improve empathy and compassion: Emotional attunement and responsiveness are very subjective skills and difficult to teach to adults if they did not learn them as children. However, by consciously paying attention to the needs of others and decreasing self-focus, you can strengthen the ability to tune in to the emotional states and motivations of your partner.
- Slow the pace of conversation. Talk more slowly. Take deep breaths and pause. Take a break if things get heated.
- Be mindful and self-aware. Know your own patterns and work to stop them. For example, do you intellectualize or lash out when you feel ashamed?
- Use reflective listening: When your partner expresses an opinion or emotion, reflect or mirror that statement back to them. This helps them feel heard and slows down the conversation. It also stops you from engaging in defensive arguing or rationalizing your position.
- Move from content to process: Content is what the discussion is about: Who forgot to pay the bills, for example. Getting distracted by content happens most often if you or a partner tend to blame shift or change the subject. I call these “yeah-buts” as in “Yeah, but you forgot to pay the bills three months ago.” These conversations often zig-zag far from the original content. Instead, focus on process or how the conversation is occurring: “I notice that you just changed the subject,” or “I feel as if you regularly blame me instead of taking accountability.”
- Listen for attachment messages: Ignoring attachment messages is a very common problem and one that can be addressed by a therapist trained in Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFCT). Attachment messages communicate our deep human needs for closeness, love, and connection. If we feel our partner is disengaging from us, we often become distraught. Unfortunately, this may result in angry attacks, sullen withdrawal, or mutual avoidance. However, often in the midst of these arguments is an attachment message.
In the example at the start of this article, the wife said: “I always feel like I’m to blame and I’m not. I feel like I can’t do anything right.” These are attachment messages. She feels criticized, unworthy and incompetent in her husband’s eyes. He could have responded by hearing and recognizing her pain, then reassuring her. No one wants to feel judged as unworthy by their partner. By ignoring these blatant messages, he inadvertently created a subtle but significant rift in their emotional intimacy.
Listen for your partner expressing fears of unworthiness, fears of being betrayed, feelings of lack of trust, and fears of disconnection or loss of love. Couples with good emotional and communication skills try to look past the surface responses of anger or withdrawal. They listen for these deeper attachment messages and respond with love, warmth, and empathy to their partner’s vulnerabilities, which cultivates safety and intimacy.