Communication in relationships can become strained in the face of arguments and disagreements. Because all healthy relationships contain conflict, it’s important to be aware of the signs that communication patterns have become unhealthy. Here’s four red flags to be on the lookout for to insure that your communication patterns remain useful, respectful, and positive:
Name-calling is one of the most damaging interpersonal behaviors that I routinely hear about in therapy, and one of the most common. For whatever reason, many of us seem to define abusive behavior as physical – the moment that a hand is raised or someone is touched, we feel comfortable labelling the behavior as abusive. We seem to struggle with the notion that language that is intended to degrade or belittle someone is also a form of abuse, and that abuse can be verbal and/or emotional, in addition to physical. Name-calling, put-downs, and shaming and dismissive language can cumulatively have very damaging effects on a person’s psyche.
There is no excuse for a partner or friend to name-call. It doesn’t matter if that’s how their parents spoke to one another, or if that’s how they talk with other friends, or if they struggle with anger management and sometimes just lose it. It’s an unacceptable behavior.
It can be useful to identify rules for arguments or disagreements in partnerships. “No name-calling” should be at the very top of this list, along with any specific trigger words, phrases, or actions that are below the belt or off the table.
There is a difference between intentionally taking space and ignoring someone. Taking a break in an argument, or taking some space for a couple hours after a fight to clear one’s head with the intention of returning to the conversation in a reasonable amount of time, are both healthy behaviors that are useful in conflict management. Conversely, ignoring a partner or friend’s phone calls for days after an argument or disagreement is not healthy or useful – it is manipulative and punitive.
Ignoring behaviors are often utilized as a power play – to wield power over the other by allowing them to wonder whether or not the problem will be repaired, or if their partner or friend might choose to leave the relationship or stop talking to them. It is an attempt by one party to feel in control of the situation by making the other party feel out of control or helpless. This is a deliberately hurtful behavior, and should be identified as such.
If you are in relationship with someone who ignores you for periods of time, and then resumes the relationship as though nothing has happened, I encourage you not to let the behavior slide – let them know this action is unacceptable, and will not be tolerated moving forward.
I come from a large Italian family, so I’m very familiar with the whole “yelling-as-regular-communication” thing. That’s not what I’m referring to here. When I reference yelling, I mean in the context of an argument or disagreement, with an intention to drown out the other party. Yelling as intimidation. Yelling to communicate power or anger.
When small children are exposed to yelling, they are noticeably startled. This is because at its core, yelling communicates distress. We are programmed to respond to yelling with a fight, flight, or freeze response. We become anxious, or fearful, in the face of it.
Obviously, healthy relationships should not operate from a place of fear and anxiety. If voices begin to escalate, it’s a signal to take a break from the conversation, and return to it when all parties have calmed down and can speak at a level volume.
4. Physical Destruction
Physical destruction refers to physically acting out by damaging oneself or one’s environment or surroundings.
I don’t love the word “normal,” but I’m going to draw a hard line here. It is not “normal” to punch holes into the wall, to break one’s knuckles, to throw things, or to damage furniture when angry. These should not be considered acceptable ways to communicate anger or frustration. Physical destruction is scary to witness, and signals a loss of control over one’s aggression. It is always my recommendation to clients to remove themselves from the situation should a partner or friend become physically destructive or aggressive. Should a partner or friend act out physically during an argument, they may benefit from further help in the form of therapy or anger management support.
Healthy communication patterns are essential to maintaining wellness in a relationship. It is helpful to know when communication has become damaging due to the behaviors discussed above. If these behaviors are present in your relationship, it may be helpful to seek the support of a good individual or couples therapist.