You've heard communication is vital to a healthy relationship. It may sound cliché at this point. However, take it from a divorce attorney: it's not a throwaway line for advice cards at bridal showers. And we've got the biggest communication red flags in a relationship to watch out for—before divorce is on the table.
"I would say that [communication problems] are almost inevitably present," says Patricia Ann Grant, a matrimonial law partner at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron. "A breakdown in communication almost always leads to anger and resentment, either overt or covert. The resentment and anger can often cause otherwise minor issues to be blown out of proportion."
One of the most frustrating aspects of missed communication red flags? The issues are often fixable—or at least, they were.
"Often, communication issues in a relationship simply boil down to a misunderstanding of your partner’s feelings or thoughts—misunderstandings that might be resolved if only the parties were able to communicate about them," Grant says.
But just discussing communication issues can be a challenge—go figure. In fact, another divorce attorney says it's almost easier to "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil."
"It’s very easy to overlook or ignore your intuition and any red flags that appear in a relationship," says Nicole Sodoma, a divorce attorney and author of Please Don't Say You're Sorry. "This is especially true the more we care for someone, but ignoring those red flags—and your gut—isn’t going to do anyone any favors in the long run."
The ripple effect can destroy relationships, divorce attorneys say. They share eight commonly missed communication red flags to work on before your relationship reaches a final destination of Splitsville.
Why Is Communication Important to Relationships?
Communication is critical in a relationship. "If you are not addressing issues when they arise, you are missing out on the opportunity for individual and relational growth," Sodoma says. "Learning or re-learning communication skills can be the foundation to the new relationship house you are building together."
Grant says that issues requiring communication can range from run-of-the-mill (your definition of a clean home) to more severe (finances). However, even missed opportunities for communication on minor issues can spiral into more significant problems if not addressed.
"Overlooking or avoiding these discussions frequently leads to increasing hostility and anger that finally erupts and becomes so much more problematic than issues might have been had they been identified, discussed and resolved," Grant says.
How Common Are Communication Issues in Divorce?
Incredibly. "The majority of couples who end up in my office have forgotten how to communicate with one another—or they simply refuse to, even if they know how," Sodoma says.
Sodoma starts sessions with a client asking the person if their spouse knows they're here.
"Almost every time, the answer is no," Sodoma explains. "Communication failed long before the client ever walked in the door...Marriage is a team sport, which means both parties have to be dedicated to making the changes necessary to preserve the relationship that they’ve built."
That means recognizing red flags that communication in a relationship has broken down and working to fix them, Sodoma notes.
8 Signs You're Having Serious Communication Issues With Your Partner
1. Silent treatment
It's hard to communicate when one person refuses to talk at all. Yet, a partner giving the silent treatment is saying so much.
"It almost always suggests resentment and hostility that is festering," Grant says.
However, the silent treatment is a massive flag about the person giving it.
"It is an unhealthy communication method, and, in fact, most psychologists today categorize it as a tool utilized in emotionally abusive relationships," Sodoma says.
Addressing issues isn't fun, but it's necessary work. When one partner tries to bring up something that's bothering them and the other changes the subject or shuts down the conversation, it's a problem.
"This is a sign that one of the parties is unwilling to address an issue that may be important to the other party," Grant says.
It's not enough to communicate your issues. How you discuss them matters just as much, if not more.
"As adults, we should have the ability to sit down with one another and communicate respectfully," Sodoma says.
Sodoma notes that emotions will inevitably flare, particularly during a years-long marriage or partnership.
"If you feel yourself getting overheated, step away from the conversation before you say something you don’t mean and come back to the table when you’re able to discuss in a more level-headed manner," Sodoma advises.
4. Not letting things go
This one is a sneaky sign things are going south. Grant says it's often a form of overcommunication that occurs when one person is bothered by something about their partner and refuses to let it go. Moreover, they may even seek reasons to nitpick their significant other.
"For example, if one partner is extremely neat and the other isn’t, obsessing about every little thing the sloppy party does is a red flag," Grant says. "The neat person criticizes everything the sloppy partner does and even begins to look for transgressions."
Experts can't say it enough: The type of communication matters in a relationship.
"Dialogues with your partner should be a mutual exchange of energy," Sodoma says. "They should be honest, transparent, uplifting and confidence-inducing, even when they are hard. If your partner engages in name-calling, is disrespectful, or is dismissive of your concerns, that is a red flag."
Grant agrees and says this red flag is particularly distressful when the partner has no problem doing it in front of someone outside the relationship.
"[It's a problem] when one party ridicules or belittles his or her partner’s feelings in the presence of a third party to avoid a private meaningful or thoughtful discussion with his or her partner," Grant says.
This one can feel like avoidance, but it's distinct. A partner isn't just trying to get out of discussing an issue—they actually don't think the problem is remotely worth discussing, even if the other person does.
"Even though the issue might be perceived as insignificant to one party, it may be that it is extremely significant to the other and, at the very least, should be heard," Grant says.
7. Not listening
Sometimes, one partner may forget to grab the other's favorite ice cream sandwiches from the grocery store. That's an innocent mistake. However, this red flag is not.
"If your partner isn’t learning about who you are—your likes, interests, traditions, goals and dreams—they aren’t listening to you," Sodoma says. "Not listening means they are not invested. The only way to grow together and create a relationship that can stand the test of time is by being invested in and listening to one another."
If you feel unseen, you may be going unheard too.
8. Emotional abuse
This red flag may include chronic run-ins with many of the above communication red flags in relationships.
"Whether they are gaslighting you, giving you the silent treatment, calling you names, or yelling at you, emotional abuse can be both hard to identify and even harder to address depending on who is being impacted and how that abuse is being conducted," Sodoma says.
People experiencing emotional abuse deserve individualized support.
"If you are concerned you may be in an emotionally abusive relationship, seek out a counselor of your own—not a couple’s therapist—that can help you unpack and navigate what you are dealing with," Sodoma says.
How To Work on Communication Issues in Relationships
1. Seek help
You'll want to work on new communication methods if one person struggles to share their feelings. Sodoma says that a friend, religious advisor or counselor can help.
2. Engage in non-verbal communication
Sodoma says communication doesn't always have to be verbal. If talking is challenging right now, couples have other options.
"Share a journal each week to learn about each other, exchange emails, or become pen pals," Sodoma says. "Not comfortable having the hard conversations yet? Try just spending time together doing something you both love and watch the conversation start to flow."
3. Have regular meetings
Weekly or monthly couples check-ins can help improve communication.
"Setting aside dedicated time for just the two of you to talk about what is going on in your lives, both as a couple and individually, is important," Sodoma says.
Sodoma suggests discussing work, dreams and financial goals or planning date nights and vacations.