4 Types of Destructive Communication

Types of destructive communication

Couples communicate in different ways.  However, often they communicate in ways that are destructive to their relationship rather than constructive. Below are four of the most common ways that couples communicate in destructive ways.

1. Trying to win

Perhaps the most usual type of bad communication is when couples are trying to win. The goal in this form of communication is not to resolve conflicts in a mutually respectful and accepting discussion of the issues.  Instead one member of the couple (or both members) regard the discussion as a battle and therefore engage in tactics that are designed to win the battle.  

Strategies used to win the battle include:

  • Guilt-tripping (“Oh, my God, I don’t know how I put up with this!”)
  • Intimidation (“Will you just shut up and listen to me for once?)
  • Constant complaining in order to wear the other person down (“How many times have I told you to empty the garbage?  

Part of trying to win is about devaluing your spouse. You see your spouse as stubborn, hateful, selfish, egotistical, stupid or childish. Your goal in communication is to make your spouse see the light and submit to your superior knowledge and understanding. But in fact you never really win by using this kind of communication; you may make your spouse submit to a certain extent, but there will be a high price for that submission. There will be no real love in your relationship.  It will be a loveless, dominant-submissive relationship.

2. Trying to be right  

Another common kind of destructive communication comes out of the human tendency to want to be right. To some extent or another, we all want to be right.  Hence, couples will often have the same argument over and over and nothing will ever be resolved.  “You’re wrong!” one member will say.  “You just don’t get it!”  The other member will say, “No, you’re wrong.  I’m the one who does everything and all you do is talk about how wrong I am.”  The first member will retort, “I talk about how wrong you are because you are wrong.  And you just don’t see it!”

Trying to be right

Couples who need to be right never get to the stage of being able to resolve conflicts because they can’t give up their need to be right.  In order to give up that need, one has to be willing and able to look at oneself objectively.  Few can do that.  

Confucius said, “I have traveled far and wide and have yet to meet a man who could bring the judgment to himself.”  The first step toward ending the right-wrong stalemate is to be willing to admit you may be wrong about something.  Indeed you may be wrong about the things you are most adamant about.  

3. Not communicating

Sometimes couples simply stop communicating. They hold everything inside and their feelings get acted out instead of expressed verbally. People stop communicating for various reasons:

  • They are afraid they won’t be listened to;
  • They don’t want to make themselves vulnerable;
  • Suppressing their anger because the other person isn’t worthy of it;
  • They assume talking will lead to an argument. So each person lives independently and doesn’t talk about anything to the other person that is important to them.  They talk to their friends, but not to each other.

When couples stop communicating, their marriage becomes empty. They may go through the motions for years, maybe even until the very end. Their feelings, as I said, will be acted out in various ways. They are acted out by not talking to each other, by talking to other people about each other, by an absence of emotion or physical affection, by cheating on each other, and a multitude of other ways. As long as they remain like this, they are in marriage purgatory.

4. Pretending to communicate

There are times when a couple pretends to communicate. One member wants to talk and the other listens and nods as if understanding completely. Both are pretending. The member who wants to talk doesn’t really want to talk, but rather wants to lecture or pontificate and needs the other person to listen and say the right thing. The member who listens doesn’t really listen but only pretends to listen in order to appease. “Do you understand what I’m saying?” one member says.  “Yes, I understand completely.”  They go through this ritual now and again, but nothing is really resolved.

For a time, after these pretended talks, things seem to go better.  They pretend to be a happy couple.  They go to parties and hold hands and everybody remarks on how happy they are.  But their happiness is for appearances only. Eventually, the couple falls into the same rut, and there is a need to have another pretended conversation. However, neither partner wants to go deeper into the land of honesty.  Pretending is less threatening.  And so they live a superficial life.

5. Trying to hurt

In some cases couples can become downright vicious. It is not about being right or winning; it is about inflicting damage on one another. These couples may have initially fallen in love, but down the road they fell in hate. Very often couples who have an alcoholic problem will engage in these kinds of wars, in which they will spend night after night putting each other down, at times in the most vulgar manner.  “I don’t know why I married a foul-mouthed jerk like you!” one will say, and the other will reply, “You married me because nobody else would take a stupid moron like you.”

Obviously, in such marriages communication is at the lowest point. People who argue by putting others down suffer from low self-esteem and are deluded into thinking that by demeaning someone they can be superior in some way. They’re on a merry-go-round of discord to distract themselves from the true emptiness of their lives.

Gerald Schoenewolf
Psychoanalyst, Ph.D.
Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D is the author of 13 books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis and has been practicing as a psychotherapist in New York for 38 years. He has helped all kinds of clients who have suffered serious issues such as depression, anxiety and phobia.

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