10 Communication Roadblocks in your relationship

Understanding communication roadblocks in your relationship is part of the bedrock of a happy relationship. After seeing thousands of couples in my private practice I can tell you without hesitation that the most common thing I hear when I do an initial consultation is that people want to improve the communication in their relationship.

Communication can mean many different things like resolving conflict, building better intimacy, or being on the same page financially just to name a few. While the end goal might be nuanced and different from couple to couple, the truth remains that the roadblocks to having good communication aren’t all that different. In my own experience, I generally see 10 different reasons why communication starts to fall apart. Learning these 10 typical roadblocks helps you identify where you and your partner tend to struggle and can help smooth things over as you try to rebuild the communication channels in your relationship.

Let’s review the 10 communication roadblocks in relationships

1. Lack of Trust

Trust is the cornerstone of any thriving relationship. Without it, conversations become minefields rather than exchanges of intimacy and understanding. I’ve noticed in my practice that a lack of trust often masquerades as something else—jealousy, insecurity, or even anger. But at its core, it’s a silent undercurrent that erodes the foundation of a partnership.

Let me tell you about a couple I once worked with, let’s call them Jake and Diane. Diane used to get inexplicably annoyed every time Jake mentioned his coworker, Sarah. It wasn’t that she truly believed Jake and Sarah were having an affair, but there was a lack of trust that made every mention of Sarah’s name a trigger.

One day, Diane decided to “surprise” Jake at work with lunch, only to find him laughing and sharing a sandwich with Sarah. The scene was innocent enough, but Diane’s lack of trust painted it as a betrayal. The funny part? Diane confessed she orchestrated the whole lunch scenario based on advice from a magazine article titled “How to Catch a Cheater.” Instead of catching a cheater, Diane caught a glimpse of how her lack of trust was skewing her perception of reality.

Building trust starts with being the kind of partner you’re confident doesn’t need to look elsewhere because they have everything they want with you. This means fostering an environment of honesty and transparency.

Becoming a great partner isn’t about being perfect. It’s about striving to create a relationship so fulfilling that neither of you feels the need to hold back or hide anything. That’s the kind of partnership where trust thrives.

2. Fear of Vulnerability

Vulnerability is the gateway to intimacy in any relationship, yet the fear of judgment or rejection often keeps this gate firmly shut. Many couples struggle not because they have nothing to share, but because they fear how their innermost thoughts, desires, and insecurities will be received. Brené Brown, a sage in the realm of vulnerability, beautifully encapsulates this sentiment: “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.”

I recall a poignant moment with a client, let’s refer to her as Margaret, a spirited 65-year-old with a lifetime of experiences. One day, she shared a revelation that struck a chord: “I spent decades terrified of what people might think of me, only to realize, by the time I hit 65, that most people are too wrapped up in their own lives to care about mine.” Margaret’s insight is a powerful testament to the unnecessary weight we place on the opinions of others, often at the expense of our own authenticity and happiness.

This fear of vulnerability manifests in subtle yet profound ways within conversations. It’s in the “I’m fine” when someone is anything but fine. It’s in the hesitation to share a dream for fear of dismissal or the reluctance to express a need out of fear it won’t be met with understanding.

Margaret’s late-life realization is a reminder that the fear of judgment pales in comparison to the richness that authenticity and openness bring to our relationships.

3. Unresolved Conflicts

Unresolved conflicts in a relationship are like unwanted guests who decide to live on your couch indefinitely. They’re always there, slightly uncomfortable to address, and have a knack for making their presence known at the most inopportune times. These remnants of past arguments and hurts can cast long shadows, impeding the flow of current communications as effectively as a dam blocks a river.

Let me give you another example with a couple we’ll call Alex and Sam. Alex is notorious for leaving a trail of clothes from the door to the bedroom, a habit that drives Sam absolutely bonkers. One evening, after tripping over a particularly stealthy sock, Sam couldn’t hold back the frustration, leading to a heated argument about cleanliness and consideration that seemed to end with promises of improvement from Alex.

Fast forward to a serene Sunday morning, and they’re debating whether to have pancakes or waffles for breakfast—a seemingly innocent choice. Sam, still harboring feelings from the unresolved “Great Clothes Trail Incident,” quips, “Well, at least the pancakes won’t end up on the floor, ignored and waiting to be picked up.” Alex, caught off guard and not quite ready to revisit last week’s laundry battle, retorts with a playful yet pointed, “Maybe we should just carpet the whole house in laundry, then it won’t matter where I drop my clothes!”

Even though this example is a bit light-hearted I think it paints the picture of the sting of holding on to things that should just be let go is heavy enough to weigh down any couple.

4. Assuming Instead of Asking

When partners make assumptions about each other’s thoughts or feelings, they’re essentially playing a risky game of mind reading. This approach can lead to misunderstandings and resentment because it bypasses the opportunity for open dialogue. In relationships, where clarity and understanding are key, assuming can distort perceptions and create problems that weren’t there in the first place.

Let’s take a look at another example with Laura and Jeff, for example. One evening, Laura noticed Jeff seemed quieter than usual and assumed he was angry with her for spending too much time with her friends over the weekend. Without asking for clarification, she spent the night walking on eggshells, trying to appease him. In reality, Jeff was concerned about a project deadline at work and was just preoccupied with his thoughts. Laura’s assumption not only created unnecessary tension but also diverted attention away from an opportunity for her to offer support.

5. Poor Listening Skills

Failing to listen effectively is a major roadblock to communication in any relationship. It’s not just about hearing the words but understanding the emotions and intentions behind them. When one partner is constantly interrupting or crafting their response while the other is still speaking, it sends a message that their thoughts and feelings are not valued. This behavior can lead to frustration and a breakdown in communication, as important details and emotional cues are missed.

To make this clear let’s take a look at a couple we’ll name Sara and Tom. Sara was explaining how she felt overwhelmed with her workload and needed some support. Tom, however, was half-listening while scrolling through his phone. He caught the gist of Sara needing help but missed the emotional weight of her words. When he casually suggested she just “relax and take a break,” Sara felt dismissed and unheard, exacerbating her stress instead of alleviating it.

6. Technology and Distractions

In today’s digital age, technology, although designed to connect us, often becomes a barrier to real, meaningful interaction. The constant presence of screens in our lives can significantly detract from the quality of our face-to-face communications. When partners allow technology to interrupt conversations or dominate their time together, it can lead to feelings of neglect and disconnection.

Let’s go back to an example to hit this home with a couple we’ll name Emily and Derek who had set aside an evening to discuss their vacation plans. However, Derek kept checking his work emails on his laptop, while Emily was distracted by social media notifications on her phone. Their intended quality time quickly deteriorated into both of them being physically present but emotionally distant, illustrating how technology can silently erode the foundations of their connection.

7. Stress and External Pressures

External pressures, such as job stress, financial worries, or family issues, can have a profound impact on how couples communicate. Stress can reduce an individual’s patience and increase irritability, making calm and constructive conversations more difficult to achieve. When both partners are under stress, the likelihood of misunderstandings and conflicts escalates, potentially harming the relationship.

Alex and Jordan experienced this firsthand when both their workplaces underwent significant changes at the same time, increasing their stress levels. Alex started to bring home his frustrations, responding sharply to Jordan’s attempts at conversation. Jordan, feeling equally stressed, retaliated with the same tone. This cycle of stress-induced communication breakdown illustrated how external pressures can disrupt the harmony of a relationship, turning minor issues into major conflicts.

8. Different Communication Styles

The diversity in communication styles between partners can often be a source of misunderstanding and conflict. Assertive, passive, and aggressive styles can clash in ways that lead to frustration rather than understanding. An assertive communicator aims for open and honest dialogue without infringing on the other’s rights. In contrast, a passive individual might withhold their true feelings to avoid conflict, and an aggressive communicator may push to dominate the conversation, disregarding their partner’s perspective.

Imagine a scenario where Anna, who has an assertive communication style, is trying to discuss budgeting with her partner, Lee, who tends to be passive. Anna’s direct approach makes Lee feel pressured and judged, leading him to shut down and withdraw from the conversation. This dynamic frustrates Anna, who interprets Lee’s silence as disinterest, not recognizing it as his way of coping with discomfort. This example shows how differing communication styles can complicate even the most straightforward conversations, turning them into sources of tension.

9. Lack of Empathy

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is crucial in any relationship. A lack of empathy can create a chasm between partners, as one or both individuals may feel that their emotions and perspectives are being dismissed or misunderstood. Without empathy, partners are less likely to respond to each other’s needs effectively, leading to feelings of isolation and neglect.

Consider the situation with Marcus and Elena. When Elena expressed anxiety about her job security, Marcus quickly dismissed her concerns, telling her to just work harder and not worry. His lack of empathy made Elena feel alone and unsupported, exacerbating her stress rather than alleviating it. Marcus’s inability to genuinely understand and share in Elena’s feelings not only failed to address the issue at hand but also planted seeds of resentment, illustrating how critical empathy is for nurturing a supportive and understanding relationship.

10. Avoiding Difficult Conversations

The inclination to sidestep uncomfortable discussions can severely impact the health of a relationship. Avoiding tough conversations about issues like finances, intimacy, or future plans might provide temporary relief from conflict, but it often leads to bigger problems down the line. This avoidance strategy can result in a buildup of unresolved issues, creating a barrier to genuine intimacy and understanding.

Take the case of Sophia and Chris, for example. They both felt their relationship was drifting due to a lack of intimacy but were hesitant to address the issue directly, fearing the potential awkwardness and conflict. Over time, this avoidance led to a significant gap in their connection, making it even harder to broach the subject. Their reluctance to confront difficult topics head-on resulted in a mounting pile of unspoken grievances, showing how dodging tough conversations can strain a relationship to its breaking point.


And there you have it, folks—the grand tour of the top 10 communication roadblocks in relationships, brought to you by years of professional observation and more than a few personal misadventures. If there’s anything my wife Michelle and I have learned through our own trials, tribulations, and occasional missteps (because let’s face it, even therapists aren’t immune to the odd foot-in-mouth moment), it’s that navigating a relationship is like steering a kayak through rapids. Blindfolded. And the kids threw away the paddles.

From assuming rather than asking (because who doesn’t love a surprise plot twist in their love life?), to the artful dance of dodging difficult conversations, each of these roadblocks has made an appearance in our lives. And while I’d love to say we’ve conquered them all, the truth is, my wife and I are still learning, growing, and occasionally tripping over each other’s metaphorical (and literal) shoes.

The journey through these communication challenges is ongoing. Each step, stumble, and occasional faceplant teaches us a little more about ourselves, each other, and how to navigate this crazy, beautiful thing called a relationship. And if we can keep laughing, learning, and occasionally locking ourselves in the bathroom for a moment’s peace, then there’s hope for us all.

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