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Is Your Communication Style Hurting Your Relationship?

If I had a dollar for every time one of my friends or clients expressed misgivings about telling a partner what was on their mind, well, let’s just say that I’d be living a much grander lifestyle, maybe on my own island, with a shiny new plane.

It takes years of work and commitment to gain self-awareness. And once we see ourselves for who we really are, we then need to set about the task of recognizing our personal uniqueness. And if that isn’t enough, once we master those tasks we need to learn to actually like ourselves and see ourselves as worthy – worthy of love, worthy of happiness, worthy of all the good things life has to offer. And once we climb those mountains, we then need to learn how to express ourselves. And that is when a truly intimate relationship can begin to develop.

In other words, now that all of the important pieces of self-development have fallen into place— we know ourselves, we like ourselves, we deem ourselves worthy, we need to find our voice. But far too often our voices are hidden under years of bad habits, poor communication styles and a ton of mixed messages. In fact, some pretty significant barriers to openly speaking our minds exist, particularly in romantic relationships where our hearts are on the line. Some of these include the overlapping fears of being misunderstood and ultimately rejected. And as a result, far too often we bounce off of one another other in relationships, with our competing needs to be heard and understood.

When I was younger I believed that if I went to all the trouble of telling my partner (or anyone else) what was on my mind, the least they could do is validate my feelings with complete agreement, understanding and empathy. And I was often stunned and deeply hurt when this did not happen — when my willingness to communicate was rewarded not with adoration and acceptance, but with a deaf ear, stubbornness and even at times, hostility.

When we allow our uniqueness to be expressed in the form of opinions, beliefs, and stances, we are asserting ourselves, and whenever we assert ourselves we will undoubtedly experience either positive or negative consequences, and most often both. Whether we are expressing our uniqueness in positive ways by sharing our passions, dreams and perspectives on life, or we are expressing our uniqueness in ways that may be perceived as negative, by setting limits or stating our displeasure about something, some level of risk is almost always involved. Our partners (or potential partners) may not agree with our opinions, beliefs, and stances; they may not share our passions (or they may be threatened by them); they may reject our limit-setting, perceiving our expressions of displeasure as critical and rejecting, rather than signs of our self-respect and a desire to grow.

So while speaking our minds in relationships — saying it like it is — may be a vital ingredient in the development of authentic intimacy, it takes a whole lot of courage because we don’t always get the responses we want. Our partners may misunderstand us, disagree with us, be offended by us (even if that wasn’t our intention), and they may even leave us, because they think we’re just too much trouble. This reality can often discourage us from directly expressing ourselves because for many of us, finding and then keeping a relationship can become more important than exerting our right to genuine self-expression.

There are essentially four styles of self-expression — three of which are generally unhealthy (but may lead to temporary success), and one that is healthy (but may lead to temporary struggles).


The first involves a passive style of self-expression. People who are passive in relationships often avoid the inherent risks of healthy self-expression by over-acquiescing, over-accommodating, and in general being a people-pleaser. Passive partners may consider themselves “easy going,” but if their ultimate goal is to avoid disagreement and possible rejection, then they aren’t really being easy going at all, rather they’re being passive by hiding their true feelings. Passive partners often opt for hiding because they believe that this is the only way to keep a partner (and stave off loneliness), so they silence their voices in order to just get along. They may even want praise for our “sacrifice,” but if their passivity is rooted in fear, then their over-accommodation is anything but altruistic; rather, it is self-protective (and ultimately self-destructive).

Passive Aggressiveness

The second unhealthy self-expression style involves passive-aggressiveness (and its close cousin, defensiveness). This pattern involves the indirect expression of our opinions, beliefs and stances through manipulation, “kidding on the square” (framing our serious assertions as jokes), mean-spirited sarcasm, and covert omissions. Basically if we’re speaking indirectly, if we throw out a barb out with an angry smile, if we use sarcasm to express serious sentiments, if we covertly do things we know are going to make our partner angry, or we triangulate by complaining about our partners to a third party with the hope that the information gets delivered to our desired target, then we are communicating in a passive aggressive style. We’ve all done it to others, and we all hate it when it’s done to us because it’s dishonest and creates no-win situations for everyone involved. Passive aggressive people typically do not want to take responsibility for their feelings and assertions so they express them indirectly, masking them in a number of ways, hoping that their partners will get the point, but won’t be able to respond negatively.


The third self-expression style is aggression, without the passivity. People who aggressively express their opinions, beliefs and stances often treat their right to self-expression as a weapon — subjecting their partners to what I like to call “shock and awe.” Rather than practicing healthy communication, which almost always involves a bit of mutual accommodation — letting some of the battles go unwon, accepting that they cannot always be right, and at times even expressing their uniqueness without words, aggressive expressers expel such force that their partners are often mowed over in the process. I believe this style of self-expression is just as much rooted in fear as the other unhealthy styles — fear of vulnerability, fear of being overrun, fear of rejection, but aggressive communicators in a sense deliver the first punch, believing perhaps that the chance of the same thing happening to them is diminished. Aggressive self-expressers also are less likely to want a consensus, and more likely to want their way, which makes developing true intimacy quite challenging.


The fourth, and healthiest form of self-expression is direct, candid, honest, respectful and for the most part calm (although firm when necessary). A direct self-expresser shares their opinions, beliefs, and stances in a non-blaming way, that reflects their willingness to take responsibilities for their needs and feelings. They also recognize that others have a right to disagree with them, to freely express themselves in response, and even to walk away, if that’s what they ultimately choose.

If we opt for the courageous path — the one that involves us saying it like it is directly, candidly, honestly and respectfully, we may lose a few potential partners along the way, but a key component of a healthy relationship involves the willingness and ability to abide the space that our self-expressions often create, and be patient while we seek a like-minded partner and the development of a healthy relationship. After all, most of us would agree that finding just any relationship isn’t all that difficult, but finding a relationship that makes us truly happy, with a partner who takes the time to see us and then values us completely (and we them) — is always worth the wait.

Michelle Martin

Dr. Michelle Martin is on the faculty at a university on the west coast, where she teaches in a Master of Social Work (MSW) program. She has worked in the social work field for over three decades in a range of practice settings, primarily with women in various life transitions. Dr. Martin has an MSW and a PhD in peace studies. She is the author of three books, and other publications focusing on social work, social policy, wellbeing, middle age, international human rights, and peace. When Dr. Martin hit middle age, she found herself both overwhelmed and fascinated with the aging process. Her interest in how women traverse middle age and empty nesting, particularly when single, is a very personal one. Dr. Martin is currently writing a book entitled Aging Naked™ about the struggles many women face when they hit 50, and the importance of aging honestly, with transparency and authentically (no masks allowed!). Her upcoming book is based on her personal blog, Aging Naked where she writes about her own challenges with middle age and empty nesting, and the insights she's gained along the way. Dr. Martin is the single mom of one fabulous son who is away at college.

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