You Can Still Have A Successful Relationship With Opposing Communication Styles

"I love you, but you're an irrational being whose behavior is incomprehensible." We've all had moments where we wanted to say something like this to our partners. Every person is infinitely complex, and when you're in a relationship, it takes a long time to learn how to meet each other's unique needs. This is especially true when you and your partner have different communication styles.


Good communication is about more than preventing ugly fights. A longitudinal survey of newlyweds published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that the happiest couples had the most positive and effective communication. Of course, as with all relationship advice, there's no singular rule on how to communicate best or whether good communication is the primary key to happiness.

However, increasing your awareness of your and your partner's communication styles will give you a new pathway to connect, solve problems, and grow in your relationship.

Assertive communication

Assertive communication is considered by many relationship therapists to be the healthiest communication style. An assertive communicator can firmly express their feelings and desires without disrespecting others.


This communication style uses plenty of "I" statements, with the speaker taking responsibility for what they say. For instance, instead of accusing a partner of being unkind, an assertive communicator might say, "I'm very sensitive about my appearance and it bothers me when you make jokes about my hairstyle." The assertive communicator is clear about what makes them upset but isn't making any claims about the other person's behavior or intentions.

If you're trying to be assertive for the first time, you might worry about developing an aggressive tone or making the other person angry (via Psychology Today). And yes, assertive communication might frustrate your partner, especially if it isn't the norm in your relationship. But once you and your partner strengthen those assertive communication skills, you'll be able to navigate conflicts in a more direct, positive way.


Aggressive communication

Aggression is the evil twin of assertiveness. A person with an aggressive communication style is quite clear about how they're feeling but is careless with the feelings of others. When an aggressive communicator is upset, they have no impulse control. They will escalate conflicts and say hurtful things to prove a point and win the argument.


As with all the basic communication styles, aggressive communication isn't inherently bad. Aggression reflects our impulse to protect ourselves and effectively calls attention to our needs (per Princeton University). Unfortunately, our aggressive instincts are often overactive and we can lash out when we feel vulnerable.

Everyone occasionally slips into an aggressive communication style when they're angry. You can probably recall moments when you and your partner said horrible things to each other that you immediately regretted. Learning how to reconcile after those occasional incidents is valuable for your relationship, but constant aggression can lead to serious emotional harm.

Passive communication

Some people struggle to express themselves at all and have a more passive communication style. A passive communicator is extremely submissive and tends to agree with whatever their partner wants. Unlike an assertive or aggressive communication style, a passive approach prioritizes harmony over their own needs.


Initially, passive communication works fairly well for a relationship. You and your partner never have fights and you're seemingly always on the same page when it comes to decisions. But ultimately, restricting your feelings prevents intimacy. If you never share your feelings with your partner, they can never give you support or comfort. Plus, the person on the receiving end of passivity is left to deal with complicated issues or big choices all on their own.

A passive person can't stay quiet forever. Eventually, they become overwhelmed by their emotions and have an intense, unregulated anger response. The guilt of getting angry will make them shut down again, restarting a cycle of passivity and aggression (per UK Violence Intervention and Prevention Center).


Passive-aggressive communication

While a passive communicator sometimes breaks into aggressive communication, a passive-aggressive communicator inhabits both styles simultaneously. In a way, passive-aggressive behaviors are the symptoms of an aggressive communicator with passive instincts.


Rather than approach a conflict directly, a passive-aggressive person will let their anger come out in the form of sarcasm or loaded comments. They might loudly sigh and slam objects, or give you the silent treatment. Passive-aggressive communication is rarely legible to the other partner — it seems like the person is upset, but they are dropping weird, vague hints while still claiming that they're fine (albeit in a sarcastic tone). Because passive-aggressive behavior is so confusing, it alienates the partner on the receiving end, says therapist Gilza Fort-Martínez (via Shondaland).

A passive-aggressive style is far from ideal for a healthy relationship. But no one is perfect, and we all struggle with passive-aggressive habits. Acknowledging the passive-aggressive elements of your relationship will go a long way in improving your communication.


Identify your communication styles

Getting to know your partner is about more than memorizing their favorite foods and television shows. True intimacy comes from learning how your partner communicates and why. People have different communication styles for different contexts, so it takes close observation and a lot of self-awareness to identify the patterns in your relationship.


Even if you and your partner have wildly opposing communication styles, you still develop patterns and habits as a couple. For example, your partner might have an assertive style by default, but when you have a passive-aggressive response, they get frustrated and become aggressive. Understanding both your default and reactive communication styles will make it easier to decide how to approach various relationship conflicts.

Remember to work together as a couple to learn about communication habits. You aren't a mind-reader, and neither is your partner — you can't assume each other's experiences. Instead, ask your partner plenty of questions to explore their communication style.

Validate your partner

Just because your partner communicates differently doesn't mean their experience is any less real than yours. Validating each other's feelings is particularly challenging when you and your partner have different communication styles, but it's important to let go of your frustrations with how your partner says something so you can truly listen.


We often tend to try to correct our partner's emotions. This impulse comes from a good intention of wanting them to feel better, but it's not giving them space to be understood. You'll likely run into this dilemma a lot when you have opposing communication styles. For instance, if your passive partner misinterprets your assertiveness as aggression, you should recognize how horrible that perceived aggression made them feel before clarifying your perspective.

When listening to your partner's feelings, be sure to validate their feelings in addition to summarizing them. Renowned relationship psychologist John Gottman said that validation was so essential to connecting with your partner that "summarizing without it is like having sex without love" (per Gottman Institute). Your partner should know that not only are you aware of their feelings, but you also affirm that their feelings make sense based on how they experienced an interaction, even when their experience is significantly different from yours.


Learn how to argue

If you and your partner don't naturally have the same instincts when communicating, you'll have to learn how to argue. Every couple has conflicts and knowing how to handle tough emotions productively will make your relationship stronger in the long run. Learning how to argue respectfully and effectively will require some trial and error if your communication styles are misaligned.


Some of the basic methods for healthy arguments include mutual respect (no name-calling), breaks for calming down, and using direct, non-blaming language (via Psychology Today). You'll discover other argument strategies that are more specific to the needs of your relationship, such as using laughter to ease tension or giving your partner a big hug before starting a serious talk.

One of the best ways to learn how to argue as a couple is with post-game analysis. You've had your fight, you've both cried and apologized, and you're ready to move on. Don't. While it's great that you're no longer angry with each other, you should still share how you feel about how the argument was handled. This conversation should be cooperative, not antagonistic: be open to your partner's feelings and work together to decide what you'll both do differently in the future.


Focus on flexibility

There is no manual on how to make your partner happy. So many factors affect how we react in situations, and what works one day may go horribly the next. While learning more about each other's communication styles, don't become too attached to one particular approach or tactic. Rather than trying to program your partner like a computer, be flexible when your conversations take an unusual turn.


Flexibility means that you're open to unexpected experiences and can adjust your course of action without becoming upset. A study in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Analysis looked at flexibility in relationships and found that people with limited psychological flexibility were less happy in their relationships, had more conflicts, and even had lower sexual satisfaction.

With that in mind, flexibility may be the most important skill to focus on in your relationship. Your communication styles will never perfectly match. Instead, stay curious and open-minded in your relationship, giving space for communication styles to evolve and grow together.