In honor of Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, I want to talk about a foundation of every healthy relationship: healthy communication.
As a society, we often act like communicating is something we should just know how to do, like walking or breathing. In reality though, healthy communication can be tough! It’s a skill that we have to learn, practice and then keep practicing for the rest of our lives.
So, how can you tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy communication, and improve your own communication skills?
Unhealthy Communication Styles
Aggressive communication is insulting, inflammatory and divisive. It might include yelling or blaming, and often causes the other person to get defensive—which in turn makes true communication even harder.
Example: Your partner is ALWAYS late for your plans, and it’s really beginning to annoy you. Today, you’re supposed to see a movie and you find yourself standing outside the movie theater, still waiting for them, as the movie is about to start. When they finally get there, your anger gets the better of you. You yell at them, “I hate it when you’re late! Why do you always do that? You’re so disrespectful.” They’re surprised, and act defensive. After all, they weren’t late on purpose, and didn’t mean to be disrespectful!
Passive communication is when you don’t share how you really feel. Maybe you tell yourself that it’s not actually a big deal, are worried that your partner won’t listen, or just don’t feel like “dealing with it” right now. The problem with passive communication is that the other person will never know that they’re doing something that bothers you. Their behavior won’t change, and you’ll be left feeling the same way that you were before.
Example: When your partner finally arrives to the movie—late again—you don’t say anything, but smile and greet them. Inside, however, you’re fuming, and you can barely concentrate on the film. Your partner doesn’t realize anything is wrong, and continues being late.
Passive-aggressive communication is when you don’t clearly state what you’re feeling or thinking. Instead, you take your feelings out on the other person in a roundabout way. You might…
- Not say that something is bothering you, but then explode about something completely unrelated.
- Mimic their behavior to “get back at them.”
- Stay silent in the moment, but then get furious about it later.
With passive-aggressive behavior, the other person may feel confused, since they don’t know why you’re upset. If they realize that you haven’t been honest about your feelings, they might even feel hurt or deceived.
Example: You don’t say anything to your partner the night of the movie. However, you purposefully arrive late the next time you have plans—that way, you figure, they know how it feels. Unfortunately, your partner is oblivious and doesn’t even realize that you’re upset.
To communicate in a healthy way, you need to clearly state how you feel and what you want, ideally soon after the action that upsets you. Of course, it’s ok to take some time to calm down or collect your thoughts. However, you should ideally talk about whatever bothered you before it happens again.
Concentrate on your own thoughts, feelings and experiences, instead of your partner’s. You are the expert on your own feelings, and your partner shouldn’t try to deny how you feel. However, if you concentrate on your partner’s intentions, they can deny that what you’re saying is true.
If possible, try to not use the word “you” at all. Instead, focus on “I” statements. Here’s a general formula I often give patients: “I feel ____ when ______. I need _______.”
Example: After the movie, you feel less angry and ready to talk. You say, “When I have to wait and I don’t know where you are, it makes me worry. I also feel disrespected, like my time isn’t important. I need us to communicate better when we know one of us will be late, and for us to be better about time.”
Communication is a two-way street. Your partner has the right to fully feel and express their emotions, just like you do. They also deserve to have their feelings heard, like you. When they talk, pay attention. Don’t automatically dismiss or discount their feelings.
Disagreeing is normal. Even the best communicators misunderstand each other sometimes. Plus, it would be strange (and impossible!) for you and your partner to have the exact same opinions, or to have habits that perfectly complement each other.
However, aggressively arguing and constantly fighting is NOT normal. Healthy relationships can exist with no yelling or fighting. In addition, you shouldn’t have to feel worried that your partner will be dismissive about your feelings or use what you say against you.
These are both signs of an unhealthy relationship. Think hard about whether your relationship is unhealthy in other ways, and whether you want to stay in a relationship with someone who doesn’t show you the respect you deserve. Talk to someone you trust about what’s going on.
In healthy relationships, both partners feel safe and heard. You deserve a partner who trusts you and treats you with respect.
As humans, we naturally mimic what we see (ever caught yourself using the same gestures as the person you’re talking to?). This means that most people learn communication from watching their families and the media (TV, movies, etc.). But not all families model the healthiest communication. This means that you may find yourself slipping into your family’s communication style, even if you don’t mean to. You may need to re-learn how to communicate in a healthy, assertive way. It may be tough at first, and that’s ok! Like I said, healthy communication is a skill that takes practice. The more you practice, the easier it will become.
If you find that you can’t communicate in a healthy way—your emotions become too overwhelming—then it’s time to talk to a counselor about what you’re going through. They can help you identify and manage what you’re feeling, and practice healthy communication techniques.
If you’re 10-22 years old in NYC, you can get free, confidential, comprehensive health care –including counseling—at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. Just call (212) 423-3000 to make an appointment.
Kaitlin Klipsch-Abudu, LCSW is a trauma therapist at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, specializing in work with adolescents and children who have experienced sexual or family violence. Kaitlin has previously worked in court- and school-based settings, providing trauma-informed care and advocacy from an intersectional perspective.