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Common Causes of Communication Breakdown in a Relationship

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

A couple in relationship conflict

Communication problems can manifest themselves at any time in a relationship and can appear for any number of reasons. They can be so minor that you may not notice them but, if left unchecked, can cause irreparable damage to the fabric of a relationship. Most relationship failure can be traced back to some kind of communications breakdown and most couples therapy is focused on understanding the root cause of a communications breakdown and attempting to re-establish open and meaningful dialogue within a relationship.

But what are the common causes of communication breakdown in a relationship, and how can you better understand them when they arise?

Causes of Communication Breakdown in Relationships

Life gets in the way

This is arguably the most straightforward way in which communication can break down in an intimate relationship and can certainly become a factor when a relationship has been going on for some time or has fallen into a set routine. If you and your partner are both living busy professional lifestyles, then conflicting work schedules, external stresses from work, or maybe even another difficult relationship with a manager, team, or family member, can have a negative effect on your intimate relationship.

In these situations, it is easy to internalise stress or, even worse, to begin to take it out on your partner or significant other. You can stop seeing your partner as someone who is there to share your burdens with you, instead perceiving them as just another detail in your life that are required to manage. This is arguably even more of a risk when couples find themselves becoming parents and having to put the needs of children and infants above any emotional needs of their own.

Problems with time management, prioritisation and external stresses are some of the most subtle, pernicious reasons why communications can break down in an intimate relationship.

The breakdown of trust

Trust and transparency are arguably the most fundamental ingredient for a successful relationship, and if they disappear, communications can break down very quickly. When trust is broken for any reason, restoring it can prove difficult.

Trust can break down for any number of reasons, including:

  • Arguments over personal finances (one partner may feel the other is not being transparent with how they spend money).

  • Infidelity – this can be one of the most damaging causes of communication breakdown in a relationship, and it can be very difficult for trust to be restored if one party has been unfaithful.

  • Loss of emotional intimacy – this often manifests itself in the feeling that one partner is not trusting the other with their deepest fears, secrets, hopes and feelings. The fear that one partner is being emotionally intimate with someone else can be very damaging to a relationship.

Total transparency is therefore essential for creating a culture of open communication in a relationship, and a lot of couples’ therapy practitioners will focus on improving trust and transparency as a means of repairing communications in a relationship.

An external trauma or shock

An external trauma or shock can fundamentally change the dynamic of a relationship, and radically change our ability to communicate with our partner. External shocks or traumas can include:

  • Sudden illness or health scares.

  • Bereavement, or loss.

  • An accident or trauma.

  • Redundancy, or sudden unemployment.

A traumatic event in our life can often change us as a person, so its not surprising that it can also change how we communicate with our partner or significant other. For example, losing a job can feel like a tremendous assault on our sense of self-worth, and pride may prevent us from opening up to a loved one about how we really feel. Likewise, we may lack the emotional articulacy to be truly open with our partner about how we really feel in the aftermath of a bereavement or sudden loss. Keeping lines of communication open in these instances is essential.

Breakdown of physical intimacy

Breakdown of physical intimacy can be both a symptom and a cause of communication problems. A lack of physical intimacy can then have a knock-on effect on other components of the relationship, which can quickly lead to other communication problems to develop. This, in turn, can further exacerbate problems with physical intimacy and your sex life.

Unhealthy/poisonous patterns of behaviour

Communication in a relationship can break down more generally, when our existing patterns of behaviour and methods of communication are unhealthy, or having a generally toxic effect on our relationship. Relationship counselling expert Dr John Gottman has identified four main ways in which communication in a relationship can become unhealthy or damaging. They include:

  • Constant criticism – criticising a partner’s personality as opposed to their behaviour, which can soon turn into personal and hurtful attacks.

  • Contempt – a clear attempt to abuse or hurt your partner in your day-to-day interactions.

  • Defensiveness – if one partner feels they are being victimised by another, then defensiveness can be a fairly common tactic in any disagreement. This can lead to both partners being entrenched in their point of view, which can further worsen conflict and communication breakdown, as neither party is willing to initiate a pro-active solution to the problem.

  • Stonewalling – this is arguably the worst and most terminal reaction to any communication problem, as couples refuse to open up to each other, in some instances even refusing to speak to one another at all.

All above can become unhealthy and ultimately toxic patterns of behaviour and couples therapy is normally required to break partners out of these kinds of deadlocks. Unhealthy patterns of behaviour are often the most visible sign of communication breakdown in a relationship, and can sometimes be a symptom of the other manifestations of communication breakdown we have outlined above.


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