Trauma Impact: Communication in Relationships

communication in relationships

Most people who encounter addiction at some point in their lives grew up in a home where there were unwritten rules like “don’t talk, don’t feel, don’t trust”. This family system does not always provide adult role models who are able to openly discuss their feelings and needs, or who know how to ask for them appropriately. We learn to either be puzzled by our feelings and not be in touch with them, or distrust them if they were ever questioned by our caregivers or those close to us. These early experiences shape the way we learn to communicate, or fail to communicate, in our adult relationships, as well as the likelihood of us getting our needs met in healthy ways. Trauma strongly impacts future communication.

The Four Types of Communication

There are four types of communication: passive, passive aggressive, aggressive and assertive. With passive communication, we are silent about our needs, often putting the needs of others before our own as we have learned our needs are not important or might not be met by others if they were to be expressed. This is often called “people pleasing”. Passive aggressive communication makes a statement about a need, but is done in a sideway, sarcastic, snarky, or joking way. If the other person does not respond in the way we would have liked, the need can be played off as not serious to prevent having been vulnerable. With aggressive communication, needs are expressed in harsh or threatening ways while disregarding the needs of others. Finally, assertive communication (which is the goal) is when needs are expressed in clear and direct ways that are considerate of both parties. 

Learning to Effectively Express Yourself

In early recovery, the questions “how do you feel” and “what do you need” are often daunting, and yet they are crucial to understanding one’s self and for supporting recovery. In order to have healthy and rewarding relationships, feelings and needs must be communicated regularly to prevent resentment, disappointment, and rifts in the attachment. We cannot expect others to read our minds or act the way we might in certain situations. And yet these are tools we must learn and practice as they were not instilled in us early in life. 

The Consequences of Unhealthy Communication

John and Julie Gottman, expert relationship psychologists, identified four types of communication in couples that show with a high degree of accuracy which couples will get divorced as well as their antidotes (these occur in non-romantic relationships too): criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

  • Criticism is a verbal attack on someone’s character or personality. Instead, we are called to use “I feel (emotion) when you (action)” statements to distinguish between the person and their actions.
  • Contempt is intended insults or abuse directed toward the other’s sense of self. Alternately, if we can build a culture of appreciation about the strengths in the other person, we can practice gratitude for the things they do well.
  • Defensiveness is a protection against a perceived attack by victimizing oneself or displacing blame. The replacement action for this is to take responsibility by accepting the other’s perspective and apologize for any wrongdoing.
  • Stonewalling is avoidance of conflict by cutting off communication altogether, which conveys separation and disapproval. Here, we can practice self-soothing behaviors, as in taking a break and asking to return to the conversation at a later time when calm and open.   

Learning & Growing in Recovery

While learning healthy communication can sound overwhelming, we can approach it like we do with our recovery- one day at a time. Being human means we will always make mistakes; we can learn and grow from these in relationships and even grow closer through that process. While it might be anxiety producing to consider being open and vulnerable, taking this risk with healthy people who can reciprocate allows us to build lasting, fulfilling, and rewarding relationships.   

By: Julie Jones, LPC-S, LCDC