Couple Concerns - Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D.

5 Communication Problems

The 5 Biggest Communication Mistakes Couples Make When Fighting

According to Exton, PA couples counselor Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D., how you argue, and how you resolve arguments, with your spouse or partner says a lot about the strength and health of your relationship. “Many couples mistakenly think that if they don’t argue, that means they have a great relationship,” he says. “That’s often not true, especially if issues are going undressed because one or both partners doesn’t feel comfortable bringing them up.” The true test of a solid relationship? “It’s how you and couple communicate during the argument that’s key to success or failure.”

Unfortunately, matters of the heart can bring out the worst in partners. When partners feel hurt their communication can often go down the tubes. “The fear of loss--loss of respect, loss of love, or loss of the relationship-often fuels poor communication between couples,” says Dr. Bernstein. “Or, some partners can’t handle the inevitable imperfections that surface in each other. They feel betrayed. I frequently hear, ‘He wasn’t like this when I married him.’ When we fear loss or when we feel betrayed, we often think and say very harmful things about and to one another.”

Dr. Bernstein, who has helped hundreds of couples save their relationships, has identified five negative communication patterns he sees over and over again in his practice. “If left unidentified and uncorrected,” he warns, “these patterns can quickly erode relationships, leaving partners feeling disconnected and full of despair.”

So, when you and your partner are having a problem be aware not to make the following mistakes:

1. Use Extreme Statements. “You always think of yourself first” or “You never listen to me” are examples of extreme statements. Speaking in the extreme can lead your partner to become defensive and resentful. Instead of dealing with the real issue, you get sidetracked about whether or not your partner always or never does this or that. It’s like setting out to go to New York but you end up in Oregon! If you and your partner can communicate in a more realistic and reasonable fashion, (e.g., “I feel like you’re not paying as much attention to me tonight as I would like.”) you will find that your discussions will be much more effective and less hostile.

2. Make Threats. Threats are words of desperation that you or your partner may attempt to try to force a desired outcome. The familiar ring of “If you don’t listen to me then I’ll leave” is often spoken in the heat of the moment. Threats are often not followed through on and they are left having a hollow ring. But over time stinging threats take their toll by shutting down communication and leading to ill feelings.

3. Shame Your Partner. Shaming one’s partner can be deeply offensive and cause significant damage to the relationship. “You’re a lazy slob,” for example, can leave an indelible mark on your partner’s self-image. Partners may regress to shaming because they feel desperate and believe that giving their partner a good “slap” will serve as wake up call to bring about change. Unfortunately, the opposite typically results--instead of waking up the partner to bring about understanding; the partner being shamed “tunes out” the other, creating even more distance.

4. Try To Make Your Partner Feel Guilty. “If you truly cared about my needs then you would not go fishing with your friends this weekend” is an example of guilt slinging. Guilt slinging is a manipulative, coercive attempt to bringing about change in your partner that is sure to backfire. Changes that result from guilt are usually not long lasting because the changes come in response to the coercion and not an inward desire. Ultimately, guilt trips lead partners to feel resentful, unfulfilled, and unappreciated.

5 . Throw The Past In Your Partner’s Face. Often the past is used as a way to present evidence for one partner to try to convince the other why he or she is “right.” In the throes of an argument past issues can emerge from ten days, ten months, or even ten years! Bringing up the past ends up distracting partners from dealing with the present issue, leading to more arguing and frustration. Each partner feels despair over what seems like and endless laundry list of past-unresolved issues and indictments. Staying focused on the present and future is what is most important.

Dr. Bernstein has seen it proven time and time again that if couples can avoid the above communication mistakes they can greatly improve the quality of the relationship. “Be patient because you or your partner may slip into these once in a while,” he says. “Being aware of the damage that these obstacles to healthy communication can do to a relationship can help put you on the road to a more harmonious and enduring relationship.”

Jeffrey Bernstein, a psychologist based in Exton, PA who specializes in marital and family therapy. He received his doctorate in counseling psychology from State University of New York at Albany and attended the University of Pennsylvania Counseling Center for his internship in 1989. He was employed as a staff psychologist for five years with the Albert Einstein Health Care Network in Philadelphia. Dr. Bernstein has over 12 years of professional experience working with distressed couples. He is currently working on a book about improving communication for couples. Please feel free to contact Dr. Bernstein at for further information.
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What Messes Up Marriages & What To Do About It

More and more research is showing what makes marriages either succeed or fail.   Impressive findings by John Gottman, Ph.D., a leading marriage researcher, have shown that unhealthy levels of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (assuming a rigid, unreasonable position) are detrimental to marriages .  The following patterns often appear in couples with problematic levels of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling:   

Withdrawal:   This is a big one.  Instead of arguing the point or talking it out, one or both partners withdraw from the conflict and from one another. 

Escalating conflicts:   Disagreements mushroom into larger conflicts and carry with them overly intense emotions.

Poor Problem Solving:  The partners are unable to stop fights before they get ugly and this makes solutions elusive.  

Low Blows:  The partners hurl insults at each other during an argument.  This leaves emotional scars and either more withdrawal or escalation.

Occasional arguments and angry exchanges of words are resolved much easier in a relationship where there is mutual respect and caring.  But once a pattern of insults and ugly fights is established, all arguments and even the minor behaviors displayed during those arguments become highly "negatively charged."  Think about the "rush" people experience when in conflict.  In the case of couples, each partner’s body and nervous system respond with an increased heart rate, perspiration, and adrenaline pumping into the blood. Given this emotional charge, even minor behaviors and topics of disagreement are to a distressed couple what the color red is to an angry bull. Tests carried out in the Gottman's laboratory on couples in high levels of marital conflict have shown that when they begin to talk about the conflicting issues, even a slight change in the facial expression or tone of voice, a raised eyebrow or curl of the lip will trigger an increase in the heart rate, perspiration, and the adrenaline level.

Things then can start to feel crazed, because the increase in heart rate, perspiration and adrenaline level and other physical stress responses result in production of more stress hormones. The body then goes into a full-blown "fight or flight" gear, creating intense anger and fear. Just consider the impact on the physical and mental health of partners in bad marriages who live in this highly charged condition day after day for hours on end. They live in a chronic state of "flooding" -that is, the body is being flooded by the stress-related secretions and hormones, which not only damages their health, but also makes it extremely difficult for the partners to discuss the differences of opinion in a calm way in order to find solutions.

So here is where things get even more messy. In such a state of flooding, it is difficult for either partner to think of the positive qualities and characteristics of the other partner, to remember the good times they had, or recall the things they used to do to please and make each other happy. Couples end up re-writing history and thinking things were ALWAYS bad.  At the heart of these emotional difficulties for couples are unfair assumptions and expectations held toward one another.    For example, labeling your partner as "only out for himself" or "irresponsible just like her mother" can do considerable harm.   Such toxic thoughts need to be identified and controlled.  

It is important for couples to learn to handle a conflict without hurting, insulting and engaging in ugly fights.  Handling conflict in an emotionally healthy way is the single most important skill partners can learn to save their marriage. Partners need to "tune in" to their toxic thoughts about one another.  Challenging these thoughts is critical in order to have a more balanced perspective.  They must also learn to suppress those facial expressions, modulate the tone and the pitch of that voice, avoid raising eyebrows and curling of the lips, and suppress the words and actions that provoke the partner. Studies show that conflict management and effective communication cut down the divorce rate and domestic violence.

Couples will also benefit if they recognize that "triggers" that provoke a fight between two partners are not necessarily critical differences of opinion over major family issues. Minor behaviors such as, a slight change in partner’s facial expression, tone of voice, a raised eyebrow or a curled lip can make the other partner shake in anger or fear.  Always, remember that one low blow or zinger can undo 20 "I love you’s".  To prevent "positive stroke deprivation," a couple must have five positive moments for every negative moment.  As pointed out by Stephen Covey, who wrote The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, you have to make enough emotional deposits before you can make emotional withdrawals.  We know that overdrawing the emotional bank accounts of those who are close to use can cause tremendous damage in relationships.


  • If you have to fight, fight civil.
  • Be aware of your toxic, irrational thoughts about your partner and challenge these thoughts.
  • Do not let the fight become ugly.
  • Curb the desire to hurl insults at your partner. Insults and fights can never resolve conflicts. 
  • When you find yourself "heated up ," cool yourself down.  Do not try to discuss or resolve differences until you can be calm and relaxed in each other’s presence.
  • Breathe deeply and relax in the other’s presence.

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Why It May Be Best To Stay Married


Prevention Magazine, January, 2003

You CAN Work it Out Staying married could be the happiest solution by Nanci Kulig

Get happy without calling it quits.

Before you file for divorce, consider some surprising news from the University of Chicago: In studies of 700 miserable, ready-to-split spouses, researchers found that two-thirds of those who stayed married were happy 5 years later.

They toughed out some of the most difficult problems a couple can face, including alcoholism, infidelity, financial straits, and serious illness. Their strategy? A mix of stubborn commitment, a willingness to work together on issues, and a healthy lowering of expectations. The added benefit? They avoided the financial and emotional stresses of divorce, which can be significant whether you have children or not. "Couples with serious problems managed to work them out," according to researcher Linda J. Waite, PhD, a sociologist at the university. One exception: Physically violent couples were usually better off divorced.

If you'd like to give your marriage a second chance, Dr. Waite suggests first identifying the roots of your unhappiness. Is there a serious problem such as infidelity or alcoholism? Boredom or emotional distance? Or outside stresses: job, children's needs, or financial pressures? Then, use one of these tools for healing.

- Wait it out. With time, job situations improve, children get older and become less demanding, and you can develop a new perspective.

- Work on your marriage. See a marriage counselor, get advice from friends and books, and make time for fun together.

- Focus on your own happiness. Get social (join a book club, choir, or tennis league, or volunteer at the local food bank), or follow your personal bliss (take piano lessons, learn a craft, whatever!). Your marital problems may not go away, but having a source of personal joy allows you to build a happy life, no matter what.

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How ADHD Affects Couples

Many of the arguments and the resulting rages, tantrums or cold shoulders that arise between people in close relationships can often be traced to differences in perception and communication style. How we see and make sense of the world around us influences how and what we communicate to others. This usually becomes apparent to anyone involved in a relationship with someone who has ADHD . Developing an understanding of these differences is essential for maintaining intimacy and effective communication. This takes EMPATHY, EMPATHY, and EVEN MORE EMAPTHY.

It's not difficult to understand how the "triad" of AD/HD symptoms — impulsivity, inattention and hyperactivity/restlessness, can affect relationships. However, these "visible symptoms" have somewhat less direct impact than the ways in which they have affected a variety of "hidden" developmental characteristics.

In the current generation of adults, most individuals with AD/HD were not diagnosed until they were adults. Throughout their lives, they have suffered a great deal of pain. Many have had to develop coping mechanisms to help them survive. Some of these coping mechanisms are not so healthy, such as lies and manipulation. Over time, the constant pressure of trying to cope with their problems brought on by their new ways to cope can bring about stress. As a result, some adults become overwhelmed, depressed, anxious and lose confidence.

Adults with AD/HD typically have a problem identifying who they "really" are since throughout their lives they've tried to change their personalities to fit the situation at hand. Adding to this confusion is the fact that they can't often trust what they feel. For example, people may pretend they are overly wise and sophisticated, while worrying about being "found out"!

It seems clear that many of the difficulties experienced in relationships result from the fact that the meanings of the words spoken and the priorities placed on tasks are quite different for the individual with AD/HD. It's as if they speak a different language. This results in miscommunication, misinterpretation and misunderstanding! Thus we often hear, "That's not what I meant!" or "You don't understand!"

Problems with word retrieval cause misunderstanding. You must know where a word is "mentally filed" in order to retrieve it. Individuals with ADHD often have difficulty maintaining an organized "filing" system since the ADHD brain creates so many options. For example, a person with ADHD may file the word "apple" under the letter "A," or "F" for fruit or "R" for round or red and so on. She may file it differently every time. However, the person who does not have AD/HD will probably file it the same way each time, under the most universal choice — A for apple.

The disorganized filing system of a person with AD/HD impacts communication in a big way, causing him to seem hesitant or unsure while he searches through his mental file cabinet for the right word or phrase. During this time, the "lottery ball effect" takes over. Instead of numbered balls flying around until they drop down the tube, a word, idea or fragment of an incomplete thought may randomly and impulsively come out of the individual's mouth. If it is inappropriate, he may then respond by saying, "Oh, I didn't mean that!" Oftentimes, however, the recipient of the remark has difficulty believing he didn't mean it, especially if inappropriate remarks are made frequently.

A thought process begins when a question is asked. The person responding must stop, listen to what is being asked, compare this information to previous experiences, choose an option and then respond. The person with AD/HD most often has difficulty in step one - stopping. As such, the process does not occur and, like the balls in the lottery machine, what comes out of the mouth is often a surprise even to the person who said it! This happens because of the difficulty isolating individual thoughts in a brain that's constantly being filled with new ideas. The spoken word only becomes real when it is uttered aloud. It is only after the word leaves the mouth that the AD/HD individual can decide whether or not it makes sense, and whether or not it's appropriate. So the statement, "I didn't mean that" should be taken literally.

Differences in priorities and time urgencies are often reflected in the "no big deal" response. For example, walking past a bag of garbage without picking it up, leaving the lawn covered with leaves, or even driving past the library with overdue books and not returning them may not make any sense to some. In the mind of the adult with AD/HD, however, it is "no big deal"; since their thought is "it will get done eventually."

Adults with AD/HD are complex individuals. Adding to this inherent complexity are the emotional defenses resulting from years of being misunderstood and not trusted or believed. One goal is to be aware of what triggers these defenses, thereby reducing anxiety and anger, which allows the AD/HD adult to incorporate the tools for improving interpersonal relationships.

Acknowledging and accepting differences help the adult with AD/HD to feel respected as a separate person. Only at that point, can the process of successfully negotiating differences and working on those issues or behaviors that may be inappropriate begin.

An "action plan" usually involves change, either in behavior, attitude, environment, or responsibility. Change is an essential part of life, yet one which can be extremely painful for many people. There is not much hope for a relationship in which one person takes no steps to change. Often, it is found that the non- ADHD person is more hesitant to change, because it has been easier to blame all past problems on her partner’s ADHD . On the other hand, partners with ADHD often believe that the partner must accept ADHD as an "excuse" for certain behaviors.

Neither partner in a relationship has to accept unacceptable behavior. When a person who does not have the disorder seeks a support group to help deal with a partner with AD/HD who is sloppy, has frequent outbursts, or is unable to hold a job, in some cases, our advice is to forget it! Behaviors that lead to disorganization, screaming or unemployment can be changed, but only if the person with the problems is able and willing to make an effort to change. If he is not, we suggest re-thinking the reasons for remaining together.

Getting out "poisonous" feelings like resentment and anger is important, yet it's often difficult when one or both partners have a hard time keeping quiet or listening without interrupting. Expressing “toxic thoughts”* and internally working them through is very important for couples dealing with ADHD . Because adults with AD/HD are often impatient, I suggest making it a "2 & 2" — two minutes for each person to write on paper or via email about how they felt that day, what may have bothered them or share positive experiences. I also suggest using "I" statements, reflecting how the person writing feels, rather than what he perceives has been done to him by others. Since this format is not face-to-face, neither partner can interrupt, be distracted by the other's words, or impulsively make a judgment leading to a blowup.

Another tool which helps gain clarity in the relationship is the Top Priorities List. Each partner compiles a list of what he or she feels are the most important daily and long-term issues to be dealt with. In many cases, the long-term priorities are similar. However, the differences in daily priorities are typically great. What the adult with AD/HD may consider "top priorities" is often in direct opposition to what the non-AD/HD partner gives weight to, revealing possible causes of tension.

Essentially, mutual trust is fundamental in a relationship that works. Mutual trust is based on the ability to correctly interpret what our partner is trying to communicate and vice versa. That process is the one that takes the most work, but as we tell our clients, life never gets any easier; we just hope to get better at dealing with it!


* For more on disputing toxic thoughts in intimate relationships, the reader is referred to Bernstein and Magee (2004) Why Can’t You Read My Mind? Overcoming the 9 toxic thinking patterns that get in the way of a loving relationship. (Marlowe and Company)

A. D. D. and Romance: : Finding Fulfillment in Love, Sex, & Relationships

by Jonathan Scott Halverstadt

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