Tongue Tied

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Dear Hoopers,
I’ve been having trouble communicating with my boyfriend for a while now. I’m the kind of person who, when something upsets me, I need time to process it before I talk to someone about it (plus my attention span/memory is horrible so I get sidetracked easily). My boyfriend thinks I’m just picking fights because I try to find times when I think we’ll both be calm and civil and more clearheaded. That or he brushes it off. His way of talking about stuff is he’ll say something that comes out like he’s insulting me. Even though sometimes I know it’s not, I still respond the same. Other times he’ll bombard me and it feels like he talks to me like he’s scolding a child which just shuts me down. In those times I physically feel like I’m unable to respond in more than 1 or 2 word answers if at all. I don’t know what to do anymore because we can’t seem to talk about serious issues because of this. We can’t seem to find a happy middle ground. What do we do?
-Tongue Tied

Dear Tongue Tied,
Relationships ain’t easy. We say this often in our column and Kate and I have seen it in our own relationship. Communication is one of the hardest things to figure out and can often be the most frustrating. Particularly when you just want your partner to understand your perspective and nothing that you say seems to work.

It sounds like you guys have two different ways to approach conflict and this has made communication especially challenging. John Gottman’s research has shown 5 primary approaches to conflict (including volatile, avoiders, and validators). Couples with different approaches can find it incredibly difficult to navigate conflict because they see and approach their conflict so differently. Overcoming this difference will require diligence and patience from both of you.

One of my biggest concerns right now is the emotional flooding that you are experiencing during conflict.

-Dr. Ryan

One of my biggest concerns right now is the emotional flooding that you are experiencing during conflict. Several things you said in your question suggest that you can become easily flooded during an argument. When you are feeling flooded, you are absolutely right that it is difficult to reason and communicate with your partner.

I would talk with your partner about this tendency. Explain to him how becoming flooded isn’t good for either of you, and won’t give your relationship the communication needed to talk through your problems. Agree that if you begin to feel flooded during a conflict, that both of you can take a timeout. I would then ask your partner to find a time that works for both of you to talk through your issues. This may seem like you’re avoiding talking about the issue, but it is just trying to give you the time and space to truly talk about it.
-Dr. Ryan

Dear Tongue Tied,
Good communication is a fundamental staple of a healthy relationship. When you feel like you don’t know how to communicate, or that your words are falling on deaf ears, it can become very frustrating especially with the person that you love. It can also bring great frustration to a relationship when you feel like you keep tripping over the same hurdles.

The reality is that everyone has a different communication style. Just because that may differ with your partner doesn’t mean that your relationship won’t work. It’s all about learning your partner’s communication style and making an effort to consciously and respectfully respond. I am more of an assertive communicator and often say what is on my mind in the moment. I can sometimes “come in hot” because I want things resolved and to move on. Ryan on the other hand is much more contemplative and reflective. Our communications styles are different, however we know that about each other and we’ve found ways to respectfully communicate.

It’s all about learning your partner’s communication style and making an effort to consciously and respectfully respond.


The first step is acknowledging that there is a problem. You may table the conversation until later, or address it in that moment, but at least you’ve recognized that your partner is distressed. I can tell you that Ryan and I make sure that if there is a burning convo on our hearts and minds that we prioritize discussing it. It’s very important that we don’t go to bed in turmoil. But if we’re having trouble talking about it in that moment, we have also scheduled time the next day to revisit it.

It’s absolutely fine to take time to process your emotions before you respond. It’s also okay for your boyfriend to speak up about what’s bothering him in the moment, as long as it’s done in a respectful manner. Learning ways to resolve the conflict and better communicate is key. If you feel like your arguments never get resolved because of confrontation or avoidance, it may be time to talk to a relationship counselor or someone who can give you tactful steps on how to improve.