Ever feel like your conversations with your partner get lost in translation? Or that a seemingly harmless comment sparks a spat? When the two of you communicate you may be unwittingly reinforcing a negative cycle of misunderstanding, bitterness and resentment, according to psychologist and couples specialist Robert Solley, Ph.D.

All couples can become disconnected. But “couples in trouble tend to fall into two camps: high-conflict and conflict-avoidant,” Solley said. “Both are disconnected in different ways.”

High-conflict couples typically attack each other with “criticism [and] commanding, sarcastic comments.” Similarly, conflict-avoidant couples also may go on the offensive but then withdraw, or they may withdraw all the time.

“Withdrawal isn’t bad in itself,” Solley said. He defined potentially problematic withdrawal as “anything that doesn’t reciprocate a bid for attention and connection.” For instance, in benign withdrawal, partner A may say that instead of talking with their partner, they’d rather listen to music because they’re exhausted, and partner B doesn’t mind. Withdrawal essentially becomes destructive when partners are on a different page. In other words, one partner wants to connect while the other retreats, he said. Over time, the partner who yearns for connection gets more intense in their pleas “to bring the other person in or let them know how distressed they are.” And this kicks off or continues a damaging cycle.

There are other cycles, too, and couples show a variety of disconnected patterns, Solley said. For example, both partners may be withdrawers. Conflict rarely arises because both take painstaking measures to circumvent potential disagreements and not push the other partner. These couples, Solley said, often feel less like romantic partners and more like roommates.

A Disconnected Dialogue

Solley provided an example of how a harmful pattern can play out in a conversation between couples. Again, he underscored that disconnected conversations can take many forms and “occur in different combinations” and that this example is simply a slice of a multi-layered pie.

Say your husband’s lead foot is making you uncomfortable. So you yell out: “Slow down! You’re driving like a maniac.”

“No, I’m not! It’s just that you drive ridiculously slow,” he says.

Frustrated, you put your headphones on and give him the silent treatment for the rest of the ride (or day!).

That might be the end of the conversation but it’s possibly the beginning of conflict or sour feelings.

So what just happened?

This basic example actually illustrates how insidious patterns can start and get perpetuated. Conversations between couples are incredibly complex where many things—many of which are unspoken—occur simultaneously, Solley said. This disconnected dialogue exhibits the following pattern:

  criticism > defensiveness (or counterattack) > withdrawal

When you dig deeper, it’s easier to see the underlying emotions and concerns that emerge. For instance, as Solley said, the reason for your yelling may be that you’re scared for your safety. But all your husband hears is criticism and that you distrust his driving. In turn, he reacts defensively. Then you feel hurt because in your mind he’s dismissed you and doesn’t care about your concerns. This may make you feel deeply disconnected from each other, especially as the same cycles get repeated over time.

Stopping the Disconnected Cycles

How do you stop such cycles from spinning? According to Solley, “exiting from the cycles usually requires some vulnerability on the part of both partners.” The ultimate goal is to empathize with your partner.

If your husband reacts defensively to your concerns, consider his feelings: “Do you feel disrespected by what I said?”

And rather than being defensive in the first place, your husband might ask for more information about why you’re scared. It might seem like an obvious concept, but for either of you putting yourself in your partner’s shoes is key to breaking the disconnection.

At the very least, couples need to become in tune with their own vulnerable emotions such as sadness and fear and learn to articulate those feelings to their partners, Solley said. In other words, instead of yelling at your husband, you could honestly say that you’re really scared. If he still gets defensive, you could explain that you’re sad that he doesn’t realize just how scared you are. And instead of being on the defensive, he could admit that he’s frustrated that you don’t trust his driving.

(On a side note, Solley said that a good way to avoid playing the blame game is to use a communication tip from the book Nonviolent Communication, by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D. That is, make your statements about yourself and don’t mention “what the other person did to you.” For example, “I feel [emotion], because I [something about you].” It’s similar with “I” statements, which are often misinterpreted. The “I feel” in an “I” statement needs to be followed by an emotion, not a thought, he said. And again, “it’s best to keep the rest of the statement as much [about] yourself as possible.”)

Also important is to end the conversation by apologizing or taking ownership for your part in the conflict, showing your partner that you understand their concerns and letting them know how you’ll try to correct the situation, Solley said.

Here’s an example:

“I didn’t mean to yell at you and question your driving. I realize that I hurt you, so next time I’ll talk about my worries, instead of lashing out.”

“I know that I get defensive sometimes, and I’m sorry about my reaction. From now on, I’ll be extra careful when I’m at the wheel.”

“I’m sorry that my fear came out as accusatory, and I’ll try to be less blaming from now on.”

Whether it’s a squabble (like the example above) or a full-blown argument, there are ways that you can stop the disconnected patterns from damaging your relationship. Couples can learn to communicate better and connect instead of moving further and further apart.