From Passive to Assertive: Why Communication Style Matters in Your Relationship

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passive-aggressive communication
Author Name: Beth Rush
Date: Thursday December 21, 2023

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Communication is vital to every healthy relationship. However, communication is a two-way street — both parties must interact and respond effectively. The tone of your voice matters when communicating in your relationship and so does your communication style.

It’s common for people in intimate relationships to feel misunderstood or like their communication could improve. Understanding how your partner communicates can help you learn where you both can grow.

What Are Communication Styles? 

Communication styles aren’t labels as much as resources you can use to adapt and express yourself. While over 55% of communication is nonverbal, understanding verbal communication styles is imperative to your relationship. There are examples of passive communication that can work effectively to avoid conflict and others that can lead to misunderstandings. Knowing when and how to use these to correspond with your partner adequately is vital.

Much like learning your partner’s love language can enhance your bond, understanding communication styles can help you handle disagreements and strengthen your relationships. The four primary communication styles are passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive and assertive. Explore what these styles mean, examples of each, and how to use them to navigate discord and improve discussions, ultimately enhancing your relationships.

Passive Communication 

Passive communicators convey indifference and don’t voice their needs or concerns, causing unmet needs that often lead to outbursts or resentment. People who express themselves this way often practice avoidance by letting issues build rather than confronting them.

This can lead to explosive outbursts followed by shame and guilt. After an explosion, passive communicators often return to passive communication because they don’t want to address what’s bothering them, so they must deal with confrontation.

Examples of Passive Communication

A passive communicator might hint at things they want or need rather than directly voicing them. Some examples of passive communication include a wife implying chores they’d like help with rather than asking their spouse to do specific tasks. This can lead to the wife feeling unheard and unappreciated when the other spouse is utterly in the dark about their feelings.

A nonverbal example of passive communication typically involves avoiding eye contact with others. Passive communicators are often popular due to their laid-back and easygoing nature. Failure to express emotions, wants and needs can result in resentment and misunderstanding because of their inability to connect and convey themselves directly.

Aggressive Communication 

Aggressive communication often defies boundaries and expresses everything freely without remorse. When aggressive communicators are confronted, they often deflect and become defensive to protect themselves. They tend to advocate for themselves in a way that oversteps and makes you feel dominated or controlled. Being in a relationship with someone who communicates aggressively can make you feel alienated and like your thoughts or feelings are invalid.

Examples of Aggressive Communication 

If your significant other often interrupts, criticizes and acts impulsively, they communicate aggressively. Aggression can include eye rolling, pointing fingers and other nonverbal cues to avoid taking the blame for anything. This communication style focuses on winning arguments and disregards the thoughts and feelings of others. An aggressive communicator often conveys that you owe them and that they are determined to get what they want regardless of how you feel or what you want.

Aggressive communication is often a form of emotional abuse and can lead to unhealthy relationships. It typically comes in the form of an insult and lacks any empathy. The communication is demeaning and can harm even the healthiest relationships. If you communicate aggressively, you should assess why you’re reacting this way and do what you can to change your behavior to save your relationship or find one that doesn’t elicit this communication style. It isn’t healthy for you or who you’re talking to this way.

Passive-Aggressive Communication 

Passive-aggressive communicators converse by indirectly and often manipulatively expressing their emotions. They typically avoid speaking with you about how they feel, yet they subtly display their anger through silent treatment or other ways of undermining the cause of their discord.

Examples of Passive-Aggressive Communication

Passive-aggressive communicators inadvertently convey their disagreements through subtle sabotage or appear to agree when they actually do not. Examples of passive-aggressive communication typically involve muttering feelings to themselves rather than directly to you, so you have to play guessing games to decipher how they feel. People who are passive-aggressive struggle to voice their needs or concerns at times, so they use tactics to make you believe they’re OK with something when they secretly aren’t.

If your partner doesn’t understand how you feel, it can be challenging for them to help you feel better. While you may think you don’t need their help, this can present challenges in your relationship. Approach a partner who communicates through passive-aggressive tactics with understanding and compassion. They may use this communication style due to trauma or feeling like their emotions aren’t valid. Ensure they know you care about how they’re feeling and work together to find ways to improve your communication skills.

Assertive Communication 

Assertive communication is the most direct yet rare form of communication. It clearly states needs and wants and considers others when conversing. The style displays confidence and respect for the other party openly and honestly. Being an assertive communicator provides balance in your relationships by offering openness and having discussions in a calm and understanding fashion.

Examples of Assertive Communication

Assertive communicators often speak in the first person with direct eye contact and honestly portray what they need from you. Examples of assertive communication are taking responsibility for your actions and ensuring you adequately express your needs while taking your partner into account as well.

Respect your boundaries by saying no when something doesn’t feel right and do the same for your significant other to practice assertive communication. Assertive communicators are direct in their conversations and don’t feel entitled, which means they know you don’t owe them anything unless you agree to the terms. You should strive for assertive communication on both sides of the relationship. Misunderstandings will occur in relationships, but you can openly and honestly express how you feel to avoid unnecessary hurt or confusion for the one you love.

Assertive vs. Aggressive Communication 

There is a fine line between assertive and aggressive communication, which is why they often need clarification. While both styles depict standing up for yourself, being assertive takes others’ feelings into account, whereas aggressive communication does not.

Aggressive communicators often make conversations challenging because they want to overpower you and make the discussion about their wants and needs rather than work on a solution as a team. Assertive communication is necessary for relationships where aggressive communication becomes disrespectful. An aggressive communication style typically creates more issues that can exasperate a disagreement rather than diffuse one.

Which Is the Most Effective Communication Style in a Relationship?

The most effective communication style in a relationship is assertive communication. It conveys direct thoughts that respect the other’s feelings while still getting their point across. Disagreements in intimate relationships are human nature and learning to fight fairly is crucial to a fulfilling connection with your partner. Gauging your communication styles and navigating difficult conversations can facilitate growth and provide resources to collaborate on solutions.

Is Assertive-Aggressive or Passive-Aggressive a More Effective Communication Style?

An aggressor applies force in situations, so if you’re accurately being assertive in your conversation, there is no need for aggression. Aggressive communication is counterproductive because it makes those you’re talking to feel inferior. When someone is talking to you aggressively — even assertive-aggressively — it can cause your walls to go up and initiate fear.

Speaking aggressively doesn’t leave much room for the other person’s emotions, so everything is one-sided, which is never healthy in a relationship. Passive-aggressive communication isn’t effective either because it doesn’t directly address anything. Being passive-aggressive makes misunderstanding easy and can cause your partner to feel uncomfortable, confused and frustrated.

Passive aggression often causes your significant other to feel lonely and like you’re detached from the relationship. The behavior can lead to anxiety and doubt from your partner. All this can lead to resentment and challenges you could easily avoid if you learn to express your opinions, feelings and concerns directly. Although that is often easier said than done, assertive communication without aggression or passive aggression is ideal in a healthy relationship.

Why Might Someone Use a Passive-Aggressive Communication Style?

Passive-aggressive communication can stem from childhood. Many people use it as a coping mechanism to deal with trauma or challenging emotions, and to avoid confrontation.

These negative feelings need to surface for you to process them, so passive-aggressive communication isn’t the answer. However, it can be challenging to change your communication style when you don’t understand why you’re doing it in the first place.

How Do You Communicate With a Passive-Aggressive Partner? 

Giving someone the silent treatment might be your partner’s automatic response to conflict with anyone, not just you. Consider exploring why they react this way and how you can work on changing communication styles to benefit your relationship. Counselors are excellent tools to help discover underlying reasons why your partner communicate in certain ways, but they aren’t the only available resource.

Communicating with a passive-aggressive person doesn’t have to be an ongoing fight or disagreement. You can take actionable steps to help you or your partner find healthy ways to express their emotions and build self-awareness to contribute to listening and communication skills. Encourage them to speak their genuine feelings and prepare to keep the discussion calm.

Drawbacks of Passive Communication 

Passive communication often hinders your ability to communicate effectively because it involves hidden feelings, which is a form of dishonesty with your partner and maybe even yourself. When you cannot set boundaries, you can become a doormat in every aspect of your life, which isn’t healthy for you or your relationships with others.

Communicating this way typically leads to feeling isolated because people cannot meet your needs if you don’t express what they are. On the other hand, expecting others to know what you want without clearly saying them is unfair and can lead to resentment. So, passive communication doesn’t work well for either party in a relationship. Relationships aren’t one-sided, so you have to be willing to meet your significant other halfway.

Feeling like your emotions aren’t valid is grounds for dismissal, but not if the other person doesn’t know your feelings so they can address them properly. When communication isn’t clear, misunderstandings are inevitable. Passive communication can lead to passive behavior, which can have serious consequences. Suppressing negative feelings can cause high blood pressure, migraines, ulcers, anxiety, depression and other health problems.

Practice Active Listening 

Regardless of the communication style you or your partner use, practicing active listening is vital. You can boost your communication skills and actively work on growing with your partner. Finding a middle ground can be as simple as asking follow-up questions during a conversation or doing exercises to improve your listening skills.

Games like 20 Questions or Pictionary can increase your listening skills and be fun for you and your partner to practice how you communicate and respond. Playing games is an excellent way to break the ice amidst a disagreement, encourage laughter and help you find common ground. Have fun with the idea that you use different means of communication and find ways to compromise and learn from each other to establish a solid foundation for your relationship.

Depending on the circumstances, you may use different communication styles. For example, you can primarily communicate assertively yet be passive-aggressive in some conversations with your partner. That’s why there are many avenues to explore to improve your communication and listening skills — and why learning about communication styles is so important.

Understanding Communication Styles 

Now that you understand the main communication styles, you’ll be more likely to notice when you’re using one of them. Understanding the communication style you lean toward can help you set goals to improve the way you come across. Working with your partner to communicate effectively can clear up misunderstandings and ensure you actively listen and work together to strengthen and enhance your bond.

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