Relationships—both romantic and platonic—at their best, can be one of the strongest sources of happiness and stress relief, offering positive experiences, keeping our moods high and steady, and creating a source of support when times are tough. At their worst, however, relationships can feel toxic and can be a significant source of stress, either the constant, low-grade type, the intermittent stress that creates some measure of anxiety even when things are going well, or a variety of other forms of stress.
Much of what can make a relationship stressful or stress relieving is the type of communication that holds the relationship together. Healthy communication can enable us to weather nearly any storm and can keep things running smoothly on a day-to-day basis. If communication is open and clear, small problems are dealt with quickly and easily, and the relationship moves on. When communication is less healthy, small problems can become larger problems and resentment can grow. Here are some unhealthy types of communication to avoid, and how they create stress. You’ll also find healthier ways to communicate in all of your relationships.
What Constitutes Poor Communication
Not Really Listening: There are several forms of poor listening, and they all wear away at relationships in one way or another. There’s the lazy listening of someone who isn’t really paying attention but is politely saying, “Uh-huh…uh-huh.” This is only mildly detrimental, but it can damage a relationship when it’s one-sided or chronic, and when one partner realizes that much of what they say isn’t really being heard or remembered. This can make a person feel less valued than they’d like. More damaging is the type of poor listening where an important discussion is taking place and one person is merely waiting for their turn to talk rather than really hearing what their partner is saying.
This creates a situation where listening isn’t really happening, so understanding cannot take place. This wastes both people’s time and brings them no closer to one another when personal details are being shared, and no closer to a resolution when done in an important discussion. Perhaps the most damaging form of poor listening is when one person simply refuses to listen or even try to understand the other side. This happens all too often and creates a standoff situation more often than not.
How It Creates Stress: This can range from leaving one partner feeling that their time is wasted to feeling devalued, to feeling hopeless in the relationship when it comes to feeling heard or understood.
What to Try Instead: Try to be present, first and foremost, when you communicate. Use active listening strategies like repeating back what you understand of what the other person has said. Try to validate feelings, and try to be sure you’re truly listening as much as you’d like to be heard. It’s more than worth the effort.
This form of communication can show itself in many ways as well. One partner can undermine the other by agreeing to do something and then “forgetting,” or seeming to agree, but saying the opposite the next time the subject comes up. Passive-aggressiveness can also show itself by constant disagreement over small issues, particularly in front of others.
How It Creates Stress: This can be stressful in part because passive-aggressiveness is hard to address; it can be easily denied, creating a “gaslighting” situation. It can also create low-grade stress to feel you’re communicating with someone who doesn’t understand or won’t remember what is said or simply doesn’t care.
What to Try Instead: Again, active listening can help here. Also helpful is direct communication, where you directly discuss if you have a disagreement or an issue with someone. Using “I messages” can help others understand how you feel as well. This may seem like the conflict at the moment, but it actually circumvents long-term conflict by resolving issues as they arise.
Aggressive communication involves overtly hostile communication, including criticism or even name-calling. It devalues the other person overtly, leaving people feeling defensive and leaving no veil over the overt conflict.
How It Creates Stress: It never feels good to be attacked. Those using aggressive communication tactics are more interested in power and “winning” rather than coming to an understanding. This brings the conflict to a new level and makes mutual understanding elusive.
What to Try Instead: If you find yourself being aggressive, it’s time to stop and try to understand who you’re talking to, seeing their side as well. If you find yourself on the receiving end of aggressiveness and can’t get the person to understand your perspective, it may be time to distance yourself and use assertive communication techniques when necessary. Setting boundaries is a must.