Communication Styles in Relationships: What Works & What Doesn’t

To get what we want in relationships, we need to communicate smartly.

Some people need to be listened to, without feeling judged. Some people need encouragement. Some people need the occasional kick in the pants.

Learn about the four communication styles in relationships, what they each have going for themselves, and how to mix and match approaches.

The 4 Patterns

There are four basic communication styles in relationships:

  1. Passive
  2. Aggressive
  3. Passive-aggressive
  4. Assertive

1. Passive

Passive communicators avoid conflict at all costs. To reduce friction, they will go along with whatever you suggest. Their objective is to “maintain the peace.”

These people rarely state their opinions. Everything gets bottled up. In those rare instances when they do, they will right away apologize or quickly change their opinion to better accommodate the other person.

This type suffers from a lack of boundaries; they can’t say “No.”

To the outside world, the passive communicator often seems easygoing. But they can also be perceived as hard to pin down, even dishonest, as they never take a stance. 

At their core, passive communicators are deeply insecure. They are afraid of social disapproval. This explains their people-pleasing tendencies.

These types often suffer from a victim mentality. Nothing is ever their fault — after all, they didn’t do anything. From where they stand, it’s up to the other person to take care of matters. They are just along for the ride.


  • “That’s fine.”
  • “We can do whatever.”
  • “I’ll have the same thing.”
  • “It really doesn’t matter.”

Non-Verbal Signs

The nonverbal giveaway of passive communicators is their poor eye contact. They will always look away first, signaling submissiveness.

Poor posture is another telltale sign. The passive communicator makes themselves appear smaller than they are, to not be seen as a threat.

In terms of facial expressions, some passive communicators lean towards inexpressiveness. The more neutral they remain, the less offense they will cause.

Some passive communicators go in the opposite direction. They will excessively mirror the other person. If the other person is excited, they pretend to be excited. If the other person is sad, they will act sad.

What This Means for the Relationship

If you are with a passive communicator, you will rarely ever fight. For long periods, it might seem like you are in the perfect relationship — evenly matched, peaceful.

But this doesn’t mean that things are actually going well. Your partner might harbor major grievances, without letting you know.

In fact, many passive partners feel “walked over,” as they are not being heard. This can cause resentment, even hate. However, all these conflicts take place internally. For the longest time, they don’t voice their frustrations.

To make matters worse, the passive communicator often attracts exploitive types. Since they offer no opposition, it’s easy for these sharks to get away with stuff.

But even the most passive person has a breaking point. When they finally reach that point, the discharge will be harsh. You will be buried in the accumulated frustrations of years.

The worst thing is that you won’t see it coming. It is often the most trivial event that will finally set your passive partner off. One minute, things are splendid; the next minute, mayhem.

Typically, the passive communicator will soon regret their outburst and return to their previous pattern. It will be like nothing ever happened.

2. Aggressive

The aggressive communicator wants to have it their way. They put their needs over everybody else’s needs. Their mode of communication is dominance; they want to control the people around them, particularly their partners.

They justify this behavior by telling themselves that their goals have more merit than the goals of others. So, in their minds, they are doing everybody a favor. They are making them see “the light.”

The basic framework of the aggressive communicator is one of winning and losing. They don’t care about the cost to the relationship, as long they come out on top.

In a social setting, they will try to dominate any interaction. They are prone to interrupting others mid-speech.

They talk a lot more than they listen. And even if they do listen, they are not considering what you are saying. They are just busy preparing a counterattack.

Overall, the aggressive communicator is perceived as demanding, even hostile.

Deep down, an aggressive communicator is concerned with tension relief. By hurting others, they get to forget about their own lifelong pain.

Even if they try, it is difficult for an aggressive person to signal vulnerability. Due to their harsh mannerisms, they won’t get the message across. It can make them feel cut off.


  • “Get over it.”
  • “This is how it’s gonna be.”
  • “Shut up.”
  • “You hypocrite!”
  • “You bitch!”

Non-Verbal Signs

Aggressive communicators will try to stare you down. They know that if you look away first, they have exerted their dominance.

They also like to get close. When you retreat, they will follow.

Aggressive communicators will take up as much space as possible, to make themselves look bigger than they are.

Their tone of voice is often harsh.

What This Means for the Relationship

The aggressive partner will attempt to override every other viewpoint. They must always be right. There is no compromise with aggressive communicators; they won’t back down.

To get what they want, they will use bullying and intimidation. Aggressive partners are prone to yelling. Name-calling is another staple.

Their mood can shift abruptly. One minute, they are calm and relaxed, the next minute, they are in your face, threatening you.

They are also prone to low blows. For them, coming out on top of an argument is more important than preserving a minimum level of civility.

In public, the aggressive partner will often criticize the less aggressive partner or even humiliate them in front of their friends. When confronted about their communication style, they will turn defensive.

Occasionally, they will experience shame or guilt after an outburst. But this never lasts. The next explosion is just around the corner.

After communicating with an aggressive partner, other people typically feel degraded or resentful. To avoid this, they will try to steer clear of the aggressive communicator.

In the long term, family members and friends will turn away from them. That’s why the aggressive communicator must endlessly find replacements.

3. Passive-Aggressive

The passive-aggressive communicator is resentful of their partner. But unlike the aggressive communicator, they will mask that resentment.

In a sense, they are trying to have it both ways — they want you to change your behavior, but at the same time, they don’t want to have the unpleasant conversation.

There are three subtypes. Some communicators lean more toward the passive side of the spectrum, some are slightly more aggressive, and some are in the middle

An example of the first type would be someone being overly nice to your face, but then talking negatively behind your back.

With more aggressive types, there is a lot of oppositional behavior and sarcasm. For example, the person will agree to do you a favor, but at the same time roll their eyes at you for having the audacity to ask.

Those in the middle make an effort to act appropriately on the surface. But now and then, they will weave in little hostile comments.

All passive-aggressive communicators tend to gossip. It plays into their communication style — they don’t need to confront the other person, but they still get to vent their frustrations.

Passive-aggressive communicators are prone to sabotage. For example, your passive-aggressive colleague might praise your idea at the meeting but then do everything to make it fail.

“You” statements are a favorite of theirs. They make it easy to assign blame. They avoid “I” statements.

Deep down, the passive-aggressive communicator feels powerless. They have never learned to clearly state what they need. Hence the indirect signaling.

The problem is a lack of agency. They don’t want to take responsibility for their life. Instead, they are hoping for someone to come along and make everything right. When that doesn’t happen, they get angry.

Confronted, the passive-aggressive partner will deny there is a problem, even if everything about them tells you that they are seething.


  • “I am not mad, but that was very inconsiderate of you.”
  • “That is such a great idea! Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite add up.”
  • “I don’t understand why you have to be like this. That’s so sad of you.”
  • “You really should know better by now.”

Non-Verbal Signs

With the extra passive type, you will get a lot of fake smiles. They will pretend to like you when in truth they despise you. However, they will express that aggression later, when you are not around. Now their face will go from sweet to distorted.

More aggressive types display mixed signals. They will say one thing, but then communicate another thing through their body language or tonality. For example, they might say, “Of course, I would like to help you move,” but they will say it with a flat, sarcastic tone.

Muttering insults under their breath is another version of this.

What This Means for the Relationship

When you are with a passive-aggressive communicator, especially with the more aggressive variety, get ready for lots of snidey remarks. “Oh, that was so smart of you. I wonder how you can be so intelligent and still make so little money.”

Another favorite of the passive-aggressive partner is the silent treatment. Instead of voicing their resentment, they will freeze you out. This way, they avoid an all-out confrontation — something the passive-aggressive partner is afraid of — while still expressing their displeasure.

The worst scenario is when a passive-aggressive partner ends up with someone who is not good at picking up social cues. Here, their underhanded attacks will go unnoticed. This will provoke the passive-aggressive party even further. The situation will quickly spiral out of control.

Passive-aggressive partners often suffer from loneliness. Their backstabbing behavior drives other people away. But instead of learning from their mistakes, it embitters the passive-aggressive person even further.

4. Assertive

An assertive communicator will clearly state what they want but do so in a non-confrontational manner.

They try to respect the other person. That’s not because they are afraid of confrontation. Rather, they understand that to get what you want, it is better to have a calm discussion than to yell at each other.

Assertive communicators welcome negotiation. They are willing to find a compromise that works for everybody.

The assertive person has a good understanding of boundaries. This goes both ways. On the one hand, they uphold their own boundaries. On the other hand, they consider the boundaries of others.

These communicators are highly self-controlled. When everybody else is losing it, they keep a clear head.

To pull off this communication style, you need to be sure of yourself. You need to state your opinions, even when they might be unpopular. At the same time, you need to let other people speak their minds, without perceiving their words as an attack.

The assertive communicator uses a lot of modifiers like “From where I stand …” or “My impression is that …” They are making it clear that they are only voicing their point of view and that they might well be wrong about it.

But it’s not easy to always keep your cool. Deep down, the assertive communicator might harbor some resentment. Intellectually, they know staying calm is the way to go. But confronted with unreasonable types, their patience might eventually wear thin.


  • “I am not feeling good because of our argument yesterday. I would like to talk things through with you and see if we can find a compromise.”
  • “You seem upset. Has it something to do with me?”
  • “I don’t agree with your approach, but you should try it anyway. I have been wrong about these things before.”
  • “I am glad you told me this. That was probably not easy for you.”

Non-Verbal Signs

The assertive communicator will hold eye contact, without trying to stare you down. They look at you confidently, but not condescendingly.

When they talk to you, their facial expressions will remain neutral; there are no signs of displeasure or hate. On the contrary, an assertive communicator will often nod in agreement with you. They have no problem conceding well-made points.

Their posture is open. They will keep their arms uncrossed and avoid an aggressive stance. Their gestures are relaxed, even laid-back. There is nothing tense about them. This makes it easy for the other person to relax as well.

They typically use a calm, clear tone of voice.

What This Means for the Relationship

Assertive partners have a direct communication style. They say it how it is. You know where you stand with them. They will not let build stuff up, but voice their frustrations early. But they will do so in a neutral, non-confrontational way.

At the same time, an assertive partner will try to understand your point of view. They will rarely interrupt you while speaking, even when you are fighting. If they do, they typically apologize on the spot.

Overall, assertive partners strike a good balance between speaking and listening. They share, but they also take in what you say.

The assertive partner can deal with rejections. They don’t expect too much. Instead, they take responsibility for themselves. They never make threats, and they don’t blame.


Here is how well (or not so well) the four communication styles in relationships combine.

Passive + Passive

A very common pairing, but also one of the most problematic ones — no one is saying what is bothering them. Problems are just swept under the carpet.

In the short term, this will feel comfy. All confrontations are avoided. In the long term, this combination will wear both partners out. Unspoken upsets abound. You feel lonely, as there is no truthful communication between the two of you.

Aggressive + Passive

Another common pairing. It seems dysfunctional at first glance, but it can work surprisingly well.

In this relationship, the aggressive partner is free to vent their anger, while the passive partner is skilled at dealing with these outbursts.

It might sound like an unfair deal to the passive partner, but it’s not that simple. Aggressive partners are typically very decisive. This allows the passive partner to just tag along, they don’t have to make any difficult decisions. Passive partners love that.

Also, the aggressive partner tends to be aggressive towards everybody, not just their passive partners. In fact, they will often be triggered by slights against their passive partner. It’s a case of, “I can do this, but you cannot.” Many passive partners enjoy that kind of protective posturing.

Aggressive + Aggressive

Obviously, in a relationship with two aggressive communicators, it is going to get loud. Periods of harmony will only last for a short while; the next confrontation is always around the corner.

However, deep down, many aggressive communicators enjoy such relationships. They are addicted to the emotional rollercoaster ride. They crave the aggressive sex that ensues. They might claim otherwise — “I want to be with a nice, relaxed partner.” But in truth, they would be bored to death.

Aggressive + Assertive

With this pairing, the aggressive partner will regularly lash out at the assertive partner, while the assertive partner will keep their calm.

This is advantageous for the aggressive communicator. They get to vent their anger until they run out of steam. As soon as they do, they get to enjoy the ensuing mellowness. The assertive partner is still there, calm and composed, ready to talk sense.

For the assertive partner, this pairing is problematic. They essentially act as a punching bag for the aggressive partner. But unlike a passive partner, they don’t get anything out of it. They don’t find their partner’s aggressiveness attractive, but repulsive.

Passive + Passive-Aggressive

Usually, the passive-aggressive partner will resent the passive partner for being such a wussy. The passive partner will just take the abuse. This in turn provokes the passive-aggressive partner even further. It’s a downward spiral.

There are two options here. First, the partners can break up. Second, the passive partner can completely retreat into themselves, to the point where they become a zombie. Nothing touches them anymore, even the most vicious barbs. But it also kills their ability to feel joy.

Aggressive + Passive-Aggressive

I call this constellation the “Vietnam War” partnership. Here, the aggressive, more dominant partner is openly attacking, while the passive-aggressive partner is waging a guerilla war.

This situation sounds horrible. But, you need to keep in mind — both of these partners enjoy lashing out. They need the confrontations to feel alive. That’s why this can be a rather stable pairing.

Passive-Aggressive + Passive-Aggressive

You see this combination at the workplace a lot. Colleagues will act all jovially around each other, but then badmouth the other person behind their back.

In a relationship, this will escalate even quicker, as there are no other people around that the partners can’t vent to.

Passive-Aggressive + Assertive

The assertive partner will communicate clearly and will try to get the passive-aggressive partner to do the same. But the passive-aggressive partner can’t; they are stuck in their way.

This failure will anger the passive-aggressive partner even further. In their mind, they are made to look silly. They will lash out even more.

For the assertive partner, this situation is very unfulfilling. They are getting punished for trying to help.

Assertive + Passive

With this pairing, the assertive partner will clearly state what they want, and the passive partner will happily go along.

This sounds more advantageous to the assertive partner, but in truth, it’s the other way around. The assertive partner feels like they are by themselves. They desire honest input, but nothing is coming.

The passive partner tends to enjoy this arrangement a lot more. They feel happy about being with someone self-assured. At the same time, they are being listened to, on the rare occasions they decide to speak up. It’s the best of both worlds.

Assertive + Assertive

Here, you have two partners who like to talk problems through. Both can take the other person’s point of view into account. Both are ready to make compromises.

Is it the perfect relationship, as so many couple therapists like to claim?

On a communicational level, yes. It is indeed rewarding to have such constructive interactions. There will be lots of harmonious Sunday afternoons on the couch.

But in the bedroom, it’s a different story.

If you are too understanding of each other, it’s hard to get excited. We need some level of friction, even aggression, to get truly aroused. This pairing cannot provide that.

It’s Not a Black-Or-White Thing

Couple therapists will often proclaim the assertive communication style as the only “right” option. I disagree.

Each of these communication styles has its place, depending on the person in front of you.

For example, aggressive communicators are not afraid to fight for what they want. In many contexts, like career or athletics, that can be an excellent trait.

Passive-aggressive communicators are great at gradually wearing the other side down. This is effective while also saving them energy. No need to fight.

The passive communicator tends to be everybody’s darling; they rarely make enemies.

Bottom line — in many situations, the assertive communicator is not the most effective person in the room. There is a reason why this spectrum of communicative styles exists — given the right circumstances, they all work. There is no one “right” approach.

Also, if you were an assertive communicator with everybody, you would never have time again. You’d be too busy being understanding of everybody’s problems. In certain situations, being a jerk or a passive-aggressive manipulator will get you there much quicker.

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