The biggest challenge in marriage is overcoming the communication barriers that prevent you from your spouse. Today, we’ll explore the most common barriers and how you can overcome them and have a healthy and happy marriage.
Most marriages are based on love, friendship, family, romance, and commitment. But, we don’t always communicate well. We say what we’re thinking, but we don’t always say what we need to say. We don’t think before we speak. We don’t give our partners space to talk. We don’t listen to what is really being said. We don’t give our partners time to think about what we’re saying.
The way we communicate with our spouses is often the cause of many communication barriers in marriage. We assume our spouse should know what we mean or that they should understand how we are feeling just by looking at our facial expressions, but this is rarely the case. Neither of us is a mind reader. We must learn to communicate in a way that makes what we are feeling or thinking clear.
What Is A Communication Barrier?
When my wife and I visited Washington, DC a few years ago, we spent one-day sightseeing. We had several places on our list we wanted to visit, so we mapped out our route and began our journey. Seeing the White House was one of those items on our bucket list.
When we arrived we were greeted with huge barricades. You can see from the photo below there are several fences that restrict access to the White House.
Notice how many fences are between the people and the White House.
These fences serve as a barricade so people can’t get too close. That’s what a barricade does (and is). It restricts access. It presents an obstacle to prevent entrance.
You can debate whether barricades are good or bad for public buildings. However, in marriage, they rarely serve a positive purpose. Since barricades (by design) restrict access, when they are constructed in marriage, they push your spouse away. Which is the opposite of what marriage is supposed to be.
What Are Communication Barriers?
Barriers come in many forms. Some are based on gender. Men and women tend to process information differently. I realize this is a general statement but most psychological studies validate this. We are not only different biologically, we view life through a different lens.
This causes us to problem solve and communicate differently.
Research shows that men, in general, tend to have difficulty putting their feelings into words. Many men don’t have an innate need to make their feelings known. And when pressed, they might not actually know how they feel right away. In contrast, women are more likely to have a larger vocabulary for describing how they feel. Generally speaking, women feel validated when they talk about their feelings and describe them.– Symbis Assessment
8 Damaging Communication Barriers
When was the last time you went to the doctor for a check-up? How about your car? Keeping your vehicle in tip-top shape is an important way to keep it on the road and out of the repair shop. The same is true of your communication with your partner. Just like your car, you have to keep it up to date and use it every day to keep it running smooth and strong.
In this section, we will diagnose (identify) several styles of communication that become barriers in the relationship.
1. The Cold Shoulder
I’m sure you are familiar with the term. It refers to a person who is aloof and closed. It is characterized by the terms:
it is often served by means of pouting and ignoring the other person.
This behavior creates a barrier to connecting with your spouse. It’s almost impossible to connect when you are ignored.
2. The Explosive Response
I sometimes refer to this type of person as ‘the demolition expert’ because they know how to use anger to manipulate and control other people. They are explosive and mean. When they don’t get their way, they use sarcasm and anger to let you know they are displeased.
These people are insecure and immature. If you are married to one, read this series.
3. The Long Distance Runner
These are the ones who tend to run from any kind of conflict. They not only avoid confrontation, but they also avoid responsibility in general.
They are like the ‘Cross Country’ runner who sprints away from the problem instead of facing it and resolving the conflict.
4. The Possum
If you’ve ever seen a possum play dead you get the reference. Some partners play dead in their relationship if there are problems that need to be addressed.
This comes in many forms, but the bottom line is they refuse to deal with things. They are content to let things go so they don’t have to find a solution.
5. The Ostrich
Similar to the possum, the ostrich prefers to bury their head in the sand and pretend everything is okay. They don’t like to think there are problems, so they occupy their mind with other things.
You can usually spot them because they use projects, hobbies, and television to distract them from reality.
6. The Invisible Man
I use this to refer to the person who is absent emotionally. It’s not that they are avoiders (the possum and the ostrich), it’s that they are emotionally vacant. They disappear internally and disconnect when problems arise.
7. The Baggage Handler
Ever see an airport baggage handler load luggage on a plane? They toss on the conveyer belt and then pitch into the belly of the plane for storage.
The partner who is a baggage handler brings things from the past up (puts them on the conveyer belt) and lets them get loaded into the conversation.
They are masters of deflection. When the conversation isn’t going the way they want, they bring up something unrelated and pitch it into the discussion.
It’s difficult to move the conversation forward because you are always having to deal with baggage that doesn’t belong in the topic.
8. The Tennis Pro
I love sports. Tennis is especially interesting because of the constant volley back and forth.
Some couples use this approach in their discussions. If one partner brings up something that was particularly hurtful, rather than acknowledge it, apologize, and make it right, they serve it back to their partner by bringing up something they did that hurt them.
It often goes like this:
Wife: When you criticized the meal I prepared tonight it made me feel insecure and unappreciated.
Husband: Well, you are always on me about something. I can’t seem to do anything right in your eyes either.
See how that was a deflection from the real issue? It’s like a tennis match where the ball (words) are sent back and forth over the net until one person can’t return the ball. Game. Set. Match.
Steps To Overcome Communication Barriers
Steven Stosny, Ph.D.indicates that just because you talk about things doesn’t mean you are connecting. In his words, Communication Results from Connection but Not Vice Versa.
We often confuse the two. In reality, we only communicate when we are connected. So don’t confuse talking about problems as communicating. That’s simply verbalizing. Communication is different. It happens on an internal level when we hear, empathize, and understand our partner. It happens because we are connected.
Keep that in mind as we explore these essential steps to overcome barriers in effective communication.
1. Identify The Barrier
You can’t fix what you don’t identify. The first step in breaking through barriers of resistance is to understand what barrier stands in your way.
Are you dealing with a ‘Tennis Pro’ or a ‘Baggage Handler’? Are they an ‘Ostrich’ or the ‘Invisible Man’?
You need to know so you can deal with the right scenario.
You also need to know what the real issues are. Don’t deal with an intimacy problem when the real issue is about respect. It’s human nature to deflect. Fight the temptation to turn insignificant issues in big problems.
When you know what the real issue is, you can spend your energy working on the right things that help your relationship.
Why change a tire on your car when the transmission needs work? It doesn’t make sense. That’s not the real issue.
Likewise, focus on the things that are important and work on the things that count.
2. Acknowledge It’s A Problem
This is an important step. It’s one many couples overlook.
Once you know what the problem is, admit it’s a problem. I mentioned earlier, ‘You can’t ‘fix’ what you don’t identify.’ Another one goes like this: ‘You can’t fix what you ignore.’
When we were younger, my sister had an old car. It was a clunker. But it got where we needed to go. She is older than me, so she started driving (legally) before I did. We had a farm so I drove my dad’s truck around some. But that’s another story.
One day my sisters’ car broke down. Wouldn’t run anymore. Completely conked out.
When my dad investigated, she admitted a ‘light’ had come on a few weeks before, but she didn’t know what it meant so she ignored it.
By ignoring the warning light, she drove the car when it needed to be serviced. Because she didn’t take care of it properly, the engine blew.
The lesson in the story is to pay attention to the warning signs. Don’t ignore the problem because it could lead to a bigger (worse) problem.
I meet couples often who are in crisis mode because they refused to admit there was a problem when the warning lights came on.
The second step in overcoming relationship barriers is to admit when something is wrong. (First step is to find out WHAT is wrong).
3. Address The Problem Together
In a partnership, things get better when both parties are involved in finding and implementing a solution.
Set a time to address your concerns (be sure to listen to theirs as well), and agree to work on finding a genuine solution.
If you are running solo trying to work on your communication issues in your relationship (you are the only one trying to make it work), read this.
I believe it’s possible to turn a marriage around if only one person is working to make it better. Possible. Not easy.
It is much better when both parties are committed enough to the relationship they are willing to address the problems as a team and work toward a solution.
This is the next step. Once your head is out of the sand and you realize there is a barrier, face it as a partnership. Your chances of success more than double when you work on issues together.
I call these first three points ‘the major chords.’ I’m a musician so the reference makes sense to me. Every key has three major chords. Doesn’t make them better chords, just primary ones.
I see these first three items as the major chords the music is built around.
Now that we understand these primary items, let’s look at a few others.
4. Avoid Accusations
Placing blame never solves problems. While it may be beneficial to figure out what happened to cause things to get off track, it rarely helps matters to point fingers and accuse each other.
This usually prolongs the problem and keeps you from working together to create a solution.
When we’re mad, it’s really easy to accuse someone of doing harm to us. But if we pause and explain to someone how a situation hurt us or how we perceived it, rather than accusing them of intentionally harming us, we might realize that many arguments are based on misunderstanding or overreactions.– Family Life
To successfully remove the barrier, you musty stop blaming each other for the problem
5. Pay Attention To Non-Verbal Signals
it should be no secret that people don’t always say what they mean or mean what they say. It’s part of our brokenness as humans. We hide behind walls of false images we desire to portray. In other words, we are often so concerned about what people think we don’t say what we really want to say.
Discretion is good. But when it is out of balance it can cause us to say things we don’t really mean. And fail to say things we should say.
Because this is pretty normal for people, we need to become skilled at seeing beyond words and paying attention to non-verbal signals our partner may be sending.
Instead of a wife just asking her husband for something, she may send a request cloaked as a signal.
For example, the other day my wife made the comment, ‘I love flowers in the Spring.’ They look so good when I have them in the house.
At first I didn’t really notice what was happening. When she said a second (maybe third time), I realized she was sending me a signal. Instead of saying, ‘Buy me some flowers’ she was sending a request for my affection and attention.
John Gottman refers to this as making a bid for attention. I like that concept. We are constantly making bids for our spouses’ attention. Most of them are non-verbal. it’s vital to learn how to read the bids and respond in a positive manner. You can read more about bids for attention here.
I’ve talked to some men who dislike this idea. They would rather their wife ‘just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.’
I have two responses:
First, that’s not how things work. It may be how you WANT them to work, but it’s not actually how they work. You can be frustrated if you choose, but it’s like arguing with gravity. It is what it is.
Second, part of what makes a relationship healthy and happy is the game. I’m not talking about childish, immature games that play on your spouses’ emotions. Not at all.
I’m referring to what John Gottman stated. Something special happens when our spouse makes a bid and we respond. A deeper connection is established. This connection creates a stronger bond that makes marriage rich and rewarding.
6. Let The Conversation Go Where It Needs To Go
This is counter-intuitive. Most people stress keeping the conversation on the topic you are discussing. While I agree this is the best practice most of the time, I also know that the topic being discussed is not always the topic that needs to be addressed.
We tend to hide behind curtains. We use a discussion about money to hide the fact that we are insecure about our job, career, or life path. Both are connected, but often the money part is just the tip of the iceberg.
Therefore, sometimes it’s good to let the conversation drift with the current. Many times (given time and patience) it will find its true path.
7. Always Focus On Establishing Trust First
I can’t emphasize this enough. Trust is the foundation of any healthy relationship. It goes double for marriage.
We’ve talked a lot about trust in the past. Without it there is no connection or communication.
Yet, when trust is paramount, problems shrink (rather than grow) because you know your spouse is on your side, is loyal not you, and has your best interest at heart. When these factors are in play, no problem can topple the relationship.
That’s why it is vital to always focus on establishing trust.
When you face barriers that need to be overcome, your first thought should be, ‘How can we approach this and create an atmosphere of trust and partnership?’
When that is your focus, you are better equipped to conquer your barriers.
FAQ On Communication Barriers
Questions about building communication skills are common. Here are a few of the top questions we get on overcoming communication barriers.
Is It Possible To Improve Communication In Marriage?
Yes. But it takes work. There are keys to unlocking the communication door in your relationship. One of the best ways to build your communication skills is to create ways to make communication easy.
Using tools, guides, and exercises is a great way to start. In fact, growing your communication skills can become a game (in a good sense) by making it creative.
We’ve listed several communication exercises here. LINK
Why Is Communication Difficult?
There are many possible reasons. Lack of interest. Nothing in common. Boredom. Personal conflict. Stress. Personality. The list is endless.
However, one of the most common reasons people find communicating with their spouse difficult is they don’t have the skills to move the conversation forward.
Communication doesn’t have to be difficult. With the right skills, you can create the marriage you desire by getting your partner to open up.
The best way to overcome this is by using communication exercises. See the point above for details.
We also offer a mini-course called, 5 Simple Steps To A Better Marriage. It covers five of the biggest struggles couples face and offers practical advice on how to overcome those barriers.
Final Thoughts On How To Overcome Communication Barriers
Conflict happens in every marriage. Many times barriers are erected that make it hard to communicate.
In this article, we discuss how to overcome communication barriers. Two thoughts stand out: You can’t ‘fix’ what you don’t identify.’ And ‘You can’t fix what you ignore.’
We discovered eight types of communication barriers (more personality types), and seven steps to break through those blocks.
A recap of the key points we discussed:
- What Is A Communication Barrier?
- What Are Communication Barriers?
- 8 Damaging Communication Barriers
- Steps To Overcome Communication Barriers
- FAQ On Communication Barriers
We have resources available to help you create the marriage you desire and deserve.
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Five Simple Steps Marriage Course
Marriage doesn’t have to be complicated. In this 5 part mini-series, you’ll discover practical steps to redesign your marriage.
Healthy Marriage Academy
Our courses will help you build a strong marriage. Each course is designed to meet a specific relationship need.
If you are having serious marriage struggles, we recommend starting with ‘Save the Marriage System‘ by Lee Baucom.