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How to Avoid Communication Breakdowns in Relationships

Susana has a background in Psychology and Counseling and a special interest in relationship dynamics.

Relationship Diagram

Relationship Diagram

Fix Communication Breakdowns With This Tool

Intimate relationships are hard! There's no getting round the fact that when two people decide to join their lives together there are going to be conflicts of interest, differing priorities, and different views of what a relationship should be. Effective communication is frequently replaced with conflict and arguments and we wonder how will can overcome this kind of communication breakdown.

In order to address and assess these issues, I decided that what was needed to help couples in difficulty was to provide a visual representation of a relationship. Through a simple diagram, which shows the structure of a relationship, both would be able to clearly see the current state of their relationship, the areas of strength and weakness and encourage some healthy communication on how the relationship is and how it can be improved. A diagram like this makes it easy to see the areas that need working on, find out what we need to talk about and is especially good for those of us that learn best through visual images.

Feedback on This Communication Tool for Couples

"Thank you for the magical relationship tool. It's really clever. You should put it in a book or something. We went away for a few days on our own and talked a lot and used the tool which really helped us think about what is important to each of us.

He is thinking of reducing to part time at work or at least asking for better shifts so his mother won't always be here and he won't be so tired. He's agreed that I can start an evening class too if we can find a sitter other than his mother.

So we're trying to work on it and every time I look at the girls I know it would break their hearts if we did split so we have to try for them. So thank you for your advice." —Confused

Avoid Mind Reading

Looking at a relationship in the way I suggest may seem rather clinical, but it helps avoid one of the biggest problems that occur in relationships: mind-reading. So many misunderstandings and conflicts arise because we expect our partner to know intuitively what we want.

When they don't pick up on our hints and signals we can become angry, plus a multitude of other negative emotions which can all lead to a downward spiral and a loss of loving feelings and positive communication. Being open, honest, clear and direct can significantly improve communication in a relationship and help couples get through their conflicts of interest.

Who Is This Tool For?

This is a communication tool that can be used by marriage counselors, anyone who works with couples and couples themselves. Ideally, the communication tool will be used to aid communication and understanding between both partners, but it can still be used by one individual to assess their own needs and wants in their relationship and help them overcome communication breakdown

Main Relationship Areas

I started by listing all of the facets of a modern relationship that I could think of and here they are:

  1. Managing Home
  2. Work & Finance
  3. Parenting
  4. Sex
  5. Communication
  6. Friendship (between partners)
  7. Shared Aspirations
  8. Companionship
  9. Shared Interests
  10. Socialising Together
  11. Individual Outside Interests
  12. Quality Time
  13. Conflict
  14. Unconscious Drives/Game Playing

Assessing the List

The above list can be added to, but nothing should be removed unless it is 100% agreed by both parties. So for example, a couple who do not have children could easily agree to remove the "parenting" relationship area from the list. A couple in which one or both parties is very religious might want to add religion to the list, although that could be included under "outside interests".

Couples may be tempted to remove from the list the last two relationship areas namely, "conflict" and "unconscious drives/game playing", because they are potentially the most difficult areas to discuss openly and honestly. If you are tempted to do this, then it might be worth thinking about talking this communication tool through with a qualified couple counsellor.

How to Use This: Mindset and Ground Rules

It's important that both parties use this communication tool in a spirit of co-operation, openness and honest communication - it is not to be used as a reason to argue, blame or judge the other person! Each one of us comes into a relationship with different values, previous experiences and beliefs and none is necessarily better than any other. It's not about being right or wrong, it's about working together to create the relationship you want.

Before you start the exercise it's worth creating a short list of ground rules between yourselves. These could include:

  • Listening without interrupting
  • Accepting that the other person's view is valid to them
  • Honesty and openness

Understanding the Diagram

Once I had got the list together of the main areas of a relationship, I began thinking about how we could represent these areas and the current importance of them in the relationship in terms of how much time were being given to each activity.

What I came up with was the diagram below.

You can see that each relationship area is a different size. For instance, in the first image below the area for "work and finance" is the largest and the area for "sex" is the smallest, because the most time is being spent on work and the least amount of time is being spent on sex. This helps an individual both weigh that particular area in terms of personal importance, as well as determine how much time is given over to that activity.

It's a well known fact that responsibilities can often take over our time in a relationship, meaning we have less energy and time for the other parts of a relationship. When most of our energy goes into work, managing the home and parenting, which is a common reality for many couples, we often find that other areas gradually fall lower in the priority list, such as socializing together and communication.


Creating Your Individual Relationship Diagram

Each person in the relationship first creates an image of how the relationship is in its current state. This doesn't need to be done on a computer as I have done, but can simply be drawn on a piece of paper. It's easiest to begin with the relationship areas that are taking up the most time and put those in the centre of your page. Then as you go through the list, relationship areas that are being given less attention currently can be placed around the outside.

So to recap:

  • Go through the list and identify the relationship area that is taking up the most of your time.
  • Draw a shape to represent this relationship area in the centre of your page. It will be the largest because it is taking up the most time in your life in comparison to other areas.
  • Go through the list again and identify the relationship area that is taking up more than the others.
  • Draw a shape to represent this area next to the first shape you drew. It should be smaller than the first one you drew on your page.
  • Carry on through the list, each time identifying which relationship area from the options left is taking up the most time.

Time to Talk: Comparing Notes

Once both parties have created their diagram of how they see the relationship currently - it's time to compare notes and discuss each relationship area.

Each individual now has the opportunity to communicate about what is important to them, parts of the relationship that haven't been given enough time and parts of the relationship that are taking up too much time, in their view.

How Do You Want Your Relationship to Be?

Now both parties have an opportunity to work on their own again to re-assess their first relationship diagram and come up with a new one that represents how they would like the relationship to be.

You might decide that you would like to devote more time "shared interests" and less to "managing the home". You may also realise that while you would like to devote less time to work it is not possible at the moment.

Try to think realistically about what you can and can't devote less or more time to. Once both of you have created your new diagram it's time to compare notes again and talk it through.


Understanding What Each Partner Wants

So now you both have an image that clearly shows how each person would like the relationship to be—what you want more or less of and what your partner wants more or less of. Between yourselves do some comparison of each relationship area and discuss them, remembering the ground rules you set up earlier.

Question Examples

  • Does your partner want more quality time with you?
  • Do you want more honest communication?
  • Do you want less conflict between you?
  • Does your partner want you to spend less time on outside interests?
  • What areas do you both agree need more time devoted to?
  • Can you make a commitment to change certain things?
  • What relationship areas are still difficult or do you disagree on?
  • Can you accept these disagreements for now and work on the areas you do agree need working on?
  • What actions can you take today to improve an area you both agree on? E.g. set a date to go out together.

Going through the whole process of assessing your relationship can take days, weeks or months - there's no hurry and no expectation that it will be completed quickly, though you may not want to let it drag out so long that you lose focus and motivation! If after completing the assessment, there still are areas that you cannot resolve between yourselves and that one or both of you feels is extremely important, then it may be time to pick up the phone a look for a reputable couple therapist.

Best of Luck!

This communication tool is designed to be helpful for couples who are struggling or have become caught up in the mind-reading expectation trap and I do hope that it has served its purpose. Creating a diagram structure of your relationship may help you see where you are going wrong, overcome communication breakdowns and help you fix it before you get to breaking point.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.