“Communication has the power to bring couples together and the means to push couples apart.” – Olson, Olson-Sigg, and Larson, The Couple Checkup

In the intricate dance of love and partnership, communication stands as the orchestrator of harmony or the harbinger of discord. It’s the adhesive that binds hearts and the blade that severs ties. It doesn’t take a relationship researcher to understand that communication plays a pivotal role in the success or failure of relationships.

What research does show us is that 40% of individuals in happy relationships assert that communication is the most fulfilling aspect of their connection, while divorced individuals often cite a lack of effective communication as the primary reason for their dissolution. Another survey of 50,379 unhappy and happy couples in the United States concluded that communication was the top predictor of a happy marriage.

Understanding and being understood by a partner, engaging in exciting conversations, and building trust and intimacy are the fruits of effective communication. It is undeniably one of the most vital keys to unlocking a secure and healthy relationship. Yet, as simple as it may seem, communication is a complex and often misunderstood skill. An international survey of 70,000 romantic partners revealed a stark discrepancy between self-perceived communication skills and the perception of one’s partner. This disconnection highlights the inherent challenges in navigating the intricate landscape of human interaction.

Communication is a nuanced art, requiring individuals to not only absorb the words spoken but also decipher the context, both present and past, to grasp the underlying meaning. Much like baking a cake, communication involves selecting the right ingredients, both verbal and nonverbal, and combining them thoughtfully. The words we choose matter, but equally important is how we express them. How we listen and what we think as we listen is also equally important.

Secure Communication: The Make It or Break It Skill of Intimate Relationships

Consider the following scenarios:

Speaker Scenarios

  • Scenario One: James says to Kris, “What’s wrong with you, you never clean up the dishes.”
  • Scenario Two: James says to Kris, “I’m exhausted today, would you be willing to do the dishes tonight? It would help me a lot.”

In both scenarios, James communicates a similar request, but the tone and approach differ drastically. Dr. Gottman’s research reinforces the idea that 94% of the time, a conversation that starts harshly ends harshly. Learning to use a soft startup, providing a recipe for success, increases the likelihood of being understood by a partner.

Listener Scenarios

  • Scenario One Reactive Response: Kris responds, “You’re the one with the crazy work schedule and you’re taking it out on me.”
  • Scenario One Secure Response: Kris responds, “I get it that the dishes are stressing you out, and I will take care of that this evening. I also know you had a hard day and are overwhelmed. When I feel attacked, it makes me want to defend, and I don’t want to do that. Let’s talk about what’s going on, and can you please work on sharing more of your emotions so I can comfort you faster.”

In the secure response, Kris exemplifies an assertive communication style, rooted in a secure attachment style. Rather than responding defensively or reciprocating aggression, Kris acknowledges James’ feelings and concerns with empathy and understanding. Kris is also taking responsibility for the task at hand as well as putting up personal boundaries around harsh communication and inviting their partner into sharing more emotionally.

  • Scenario Two Reactive Response: Kris responds, “It’s not my fault you’re exhausted, but I will do the dishes.”
  • Scenario Two Secure Response: Kris responds, “Happy to do the dishes. Do you want to talk about your exhaustion or is there something else you might need? I want to support you.”

In the reactive response to scenario two, Kris initially deflects blame by stating, “It’s not my fault you’re exhausted, but I will do the dishes.” This response, while offering a willingness to do the task, introduces an element of defensiveness and subtly reinforces a blame-oriented dynamic. It lacks the emotional attunement and collaborative spirit characteristic of secure communication.

Conversely, the secure response from Kris exemplifies a more empathetic and supportive approach. By expressing happiness in taking care of the dishes, Kris not only acknowledges the task but also invites further discussion about James’ exhaustion. The secure response in Scenario Two stands out for its emphasis on emotional support, open communication, a focus on needs, and collaborative problem-solving. This approach contributes to the development of a secure and thriving relationship by nurturing emotional intimacy and understanding between partners.

Secure Communication: The Make It or Break It Skill of Intimate Relationships

Understanding Communication Styles and Attachment Styles

Our communication styles are deeply rooted in our experiences, both during childhood and in adult relationships. Moreover, attachment styles developed in early relationships with caregivers profoundly influence how individuals approach intimacy and connection. Let’s explore how attachment styles align with communication styles.

  1. Passive (Avoidant Attachment Style): Individuals with a passive communication style often exhibit an avoidant attachment style. Growing up, these individuals may have experienced caregivers who were emotionally distant or neglectful in their responsiveness. To cope, they learned to suppress their needs and emotions, fearing rejection or dismissal. This makes sense, if I have experienced caregivers not being there for me when I need them, then it’s better to be self-reliant or deny my needs so I don’t continue to feel emotionally neglected.
  2. Aggressive (Anxious Attachment Style): The aggressive communicator tends to align with an anxious attachment style. Individuals with this style may have experienced caregivers who were inconsistently available, leading to an insecure attachment. The fear of abandonment prompts them to adopt an assertive or even aggressive communication style to ensure their needs are met. This makes sense because if I wasn’t heard but learned that if I protested (got louder, demanded, or manipulated) and got my needs met, then of course I’m going to continue to use the strategy that worked.
  3. Passive-Aggressive (Anxious and Avoidant Attachment Style): This communication style can show up in both anxious and avoidant attachment styles. Individuals with passive-aggressive tendencies may have had caregivers who were unpredictable in their emotional responses. The combination of a fear of rejection (avoidant) and a fear of abandonment (anxious) leads to a communication style that appears cooperative on the surface but conceals an undercurrent of manipulation. This makes sense because if we were raised in a family where directly expressing our needs lead to retaliation or passive-aggressiveness by our caregivers, then we learn that we have to be indirect or appear cooperative to try and get our needs met.
  4. Assertive (Secure Attachment Style): The assertive communicator aligns with the secure attachment style. Those with a secure attachment style typically had caregivers who were consistently responsive and attuned to their needs. This secure base allows them to express themselves openly, without fear of rejection or abandonment.

In relationships, each partner’s communication style will influence the relationship as shown in the graphic below.

Partner A Partner B Relationship Intimacy
Passive Passive Emotional distant with low levels of intimacy
Aggressive Passive Emotional roller coaster with low levels of intimacy
Aggressive Aggressive High conflict (blame game) with low levels of vulnerability
Assertive Passive Disconnected with moderate levels of intimacy
Assertive Aggressive Confrontational with moderate levels of intimacy
Assertive Assertive Emotional closeness with high levels of intimacy.

The Impact of Attachment Styles on Intimacy and Communication

Utilizing an assertive communication style in a relationship creates emotional safety and security, leading to partners feeling heard, understood, validated, and supported. When both partners experience these emotions, intimacy and closeness become second nature.

Conversely, when emotional safety is lacking, partners may feel misunderstood, unheard, invalidated, and at risk of criticism for expressing their true feelings. In response, they may build emotional walls, hindering future intimacy and connection. Practicing assertive communication becomes a crucial habit for maintaining openness, honesty, and connection.

Secure Communication: The Make It or Break It Skill of Intimate Relationships

Practical Steps for Assertive Communication in Different Attachment Styles

  1. Create an Environment for Meaningful Dialogue:
  • Avoidant Attachment Style: Encourage a safe space where expressing needs is welcomed.
  • Anxious Attachment Style: Foster an environment where reassurance is readily available, reducing the need for aggressive communication in attempts to get that reassurance.
  • Passive-Aggressive Communication (Both Anxious & Avoidant): Promote open dialogue to prevent the escalation of passive-aggressive tendencies.
  • Secure Attachment Style: Continue cultivating meaningful conversations as a natural extension of a secure foundation.
  1. Self-Disclosure:
  • Avoidant Attachment Style: Gradually introduce personal information, emphasizing the safety needed to continue to open up.
  • Anxious Attachment Style: Encourage self-disclosure as a way to build trust and seek reassurance to help alleviate fears of abandonment.
  • Passive-Aggressive Communication (Both Anxious & Avoidant): Address the underlying fears that contribute to passive-aggressive tendencies through open self-disclosure.
  • Secure Attachment Style: Continue to embrace self-disclosure as a natural part of a trusting and secure relationship.
  1. Assertiveness and “I” Statements:
  • Avoidant Attachment Style: Practice expressing needs assertively and internally make the fear of being rejected a little quite while also opening up space for your partner to met your needs.
  • Anxious Attachment Style: Utilize “I” statements to convey needs by making the fear of abandonment a little smaller while also making space for your partner to be there for you.
  • Passive-Aggressive Communication (Both Anxious & Avoidant): Foster assertiveness as a means of breaking the cycle of passive-aggressive behavior. Make it safe to express needs and work together to honor those needs or negotiate how to make the needs of all partners get met.
  • Secure Attachment Style: Continue using assertiveness and “I” statements as foundational tools for maintaining healthy communication.

In conclusion, effective communication is the cornerstone of a connected, intimate, and supportive relationship. Ignoring the role of one’s communication style and attachment style can create distance and disconnection. Embracing assertive communication as a practice not only improves the quality of communication but also enhances the overall health of the relationship. As you embark on this journey of connection, remember that the power of your words extends far beyond their literal meaning—they hold the key to the heart of your relationship.

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