Barriers to Communication in Couples

In my practice as a clinical psychologist, I often draw on the research of Dr John Gottman, particularly when it comes to breaking down the barriers to communication in couples.

barriers to communication in couples

Dr Gottman has spent nearly four decades working with couples and studying what makes marriages succeed or fail. He is world renowned for his ability to predict marital stability with over 90% accuracy.

As a result, he has identified four dysfunctional communication styles that can not only damage a couple’s relationship, but also the wellbeing of the individual partners. Below we will examine each of these in turn, and consider less damaging ways of speaking with our partners.

Four Common Barriers to Communication

1. Criticism: Critical comments which put down the other partner.

Don’t Say: “Why are you always so messy! You never clean the mess on the kitchen bench.”

Do Say: “I feel upset when you leave all the mess in the kitchen, I need you to put the dishes away, so I can focus on cooking.”

2. Defensiveness: Acting defensively to protect oneself from feeling uncomfortable.

Don’t Say: “I may have done this, but you did this!”

Do Say: “I hear you get annoyed with me being late, I will call you next time to let you know if I won’t be home in time for dinner.”

3. Contempt: Attempts to put down one’s partner, using negative tones.

Don’t Say: “What the hell are you doing?!”

Do Say: “It makes me nervous when you drive too fast, please slow down.”

4. Stonewalling: Shutting down conversation with one’s partner, and being too rigid to make room for discussion.

Don’t Say: “That’s just the way I am. If you can’t accept me for who I am, there’s the door.”

Do Say: “I need some time out to calm myself down first, let’s talk about it later.”

Overcoming Barriers to Communication

While these suggestions might seem logical and simple, implementing the strategies can take a great deal of mental effort and motivation. This is because our communication styles are automatic reactions to the circumstances – and often triggered by events in our past, which may not even be related to our partner.

It is for this reason that going to couples counselling is a great idea if you feel that you are getting nowhere in getting your partner to listen to you. In therapy, you will:

  • learn proven strategies to help you and your partner manage conflict;
  • identify healthier communication options, and practise these through role-play, feedback and self-monitoring processes;
  • uncover each partner’s underlying dreams, history and values;
  • build shared meaning; and
  • learn how to heal hurts more quickly.

I have extensive training and practice in couples counselling, and would be delighted to assist you and your partner to break down the barriers to communication, and improve your relationship.

 Claire Pang couples counselling psychologistAuthor: Claire Pang, B Psych (Hons), Masters of Clinical Psychology.

As a Clinical Psychologist, Claire has been trained in psychological assessment and evidence-based therapies for both individual adults and couples. She is result-orientated, practicing a wide range of therapeutic approaches with great success. Claire has a special interest in couples therapy, and understanding how the patterns of interpersonal difficulties contribute to individual’s emotional and behavioural struggles.

To make an appointment with Clinical Psychologist Claire Pang, freecall 1800 877 924 today or you can book online!


  • Gottman Couple Therapy – Bridging the Couple Chasm
  • D.B. Wile (1993). After the Fight – Using your disagreements to build a stronger relationship. New York: The Guildford Press.