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
- It’s Not a Black-Or-White Thing
The 4 Patterns
There are four basic communication styles in relationships:
Let’s look at these in turn.
Passive communicators avoid conflict at all costs. They will go along with whatever you suggest, to remove any friction. Their relationship 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 for doing so or quickly change their opinion to better accommodate the other person.
This type suffers from a lack of boundaries; they cannot say “No.” This attracts exploitive types.
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 afraid of disapproval. They are deeply insecure. This explains their people-pleasing behavior.
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 things. 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.”
The telltale nonverbal sign of passive communicators is poor eye contact. They will always look away first, signaling submissiveness.
Poor posture is also typical. 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 cause for offense they will give.
Some passive communicators will mirror the emotions of the other person. If the other person is excited about something, so are they. If the other person is acting sad, the passive person will also act sad.
What This Means for the Relationship
If you are with someone who is 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 secretly feel “walked over,” like 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.
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 finally triggers your passive partner. One minute, things are splendid, and the next minute, your world is shattered.
Typically, the passive communicator will soon regret their outburst and return to their previous pattern. It will be like nothing ever happened.
The aggressive communicator wants to have their way. They put their needs over everybody else’s needs. Their relationship objective is dominance; they want to control the people around them, particularly their partners.
They justify this by telling themselves that their opinions have more merit than the opinions of others. So, in their mind, they are doing everybody a favor by dominating them. 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.
The aggressive communicator is perceived as demanding, even hostile.
In a social setting, they will try to dominate any interaction. They are prone to interrupting others mid-speech.
They tend to talk a lot more than to listen. And even if they do, they are not really considering your message. They are just busy preparing a counterattack.
Deep down, an aggressive communicator is concerned with tension relief. They want to get stuff off their chest. By hurting others, they get to forget about their own pain.
It is difficult for an aggressive person to signal vulnerability. Due to their harsh mannerisms, they can’t get the message across. It can make them feel cut off.
- “Get over it.”
- “This is how it’s gonna be.”
- “Shut up, I am tired of your excuses.”
- “You hypocrite!”
- “You bitch!”
Aggressive communicators will try to stare you down. They instinctively know that if you look away first, they have exerted their dominance.
They also like to get close. When you retreat, they will follow. This is another way for them to intimidate you.
Aggressive communicators will take up as much space as possible, to make themselves look bigger than they are.
Their tone of voice is usually harsh.
What This Means for the Relationship
The aggressive partner will attempt to override every other opinion. They are always 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 explosively. One minute, they are calm and relaxed, the next minute, they are in your face.
They are also prone to hit below the belt. 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 put the less aggressive partner down. They will criticize them 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 humiliated 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 you. They will have to endlessly find replacements.
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 — they want you to change your behavior, but at the same time, they don’t want to have confrontations.
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 really nice to your face, but then talking negatively behind your back.
With more aggressive types, there is a lot of oppositional behavior or 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 every now and then, they will weave in little hostile comments.
The passive-aggressive communicator tends 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 help them with assigning blame. “I” statements they will use rarely.
The passive-aggressive communicator feels powerless. They have never learned to clearly state what they need. Hence the indirect signaling.
Deep down, these communicators suffer from a lack of agency. They don’t want to take responsibility for their own life. Rather, they are hoping for someone to come along and make everything right for them. When that doesn’t happen, they get angry.
Confronted, the passive-aggressive partner will always deny there is a problem, even if everything about them says that they are seething.
- “I am not mad, but you should really think about your behavior.”
- “I like this idea, except for it’s kinda pointless.”
- “It’s so sad how you always do this.”
- “You really should know better.”
With someone leaning toward the passive side of the spectrum, you will get a lot of fake smiles. They will pretend to like you when in truth they are loathing you.
But they will express that aggression later, with somebody else. Now their face will go from sweet and loathing to distorted.
More aggressive types tend to display mixed signals. They will say one thing, but then communicate another thing through their tonality or body language.
For example, they might say, “Of course, I would like to help you move,” but say it with a flat, sarcastic tone of voice.
Muttering to themselves 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.
Another favorite of the passive-aggressive partner is the silent treatment. Instead of voicing their resentment, they will punish you by withdrawing love. This saves them from having an all-out confrontation — something the passive-aggressive partner is afraid of — while still displaying their displeasure.
The worst is when a passive-aggressive partner ends up with someone who is not good at picking up social cues. Here, their sneaky attacks will go unnoticed. This will provoke the passive-aggressive party even more.
Passive-aggressive partners often suffer from loneliness. Naturally, they drive people away. This in turn embitters the passive-aggressive person even further.
An assertive communicator will clearly state what they want but do it in a non-confrontational manner.
They make an effort to not disrespect the other person, as this leads to confrontation. They understand that to get what you want, it is better to calmly discuss than to yell at each other.
Assertive communicators welcome negotiation. They are open to finding a compromise that works for everybody.
Assertive communicators have a good understanding of boundaries. On the one hand, they respect the boundaries of others. On the other hand, they make sure to uphold their own boundaries.
These communicators are highly self-controlled. When everybody else is losing it, they keep a clear head.
For this communication style to work, you need a high level of self-esteem. You need to be confident enough to state your opinions, even when they might be unpopular. At the same time, you need to be so self-assured that you can let other people speak their opinion, without becoming defensive yourself.
The assertive communicator uses a lot of “I” statements like “From where I stand …” or “My impression is that …” They make it clear that they are only voicing their subjective point of view and that they might well be wrong about stuff.
Deep down, the assertive communicator often struggles with keeping a positive outlook. They know being calm and understanding is the way to go. But being confronted with more unreasonable types all the time will wear down their patience.
- “I am not feeling good because of our argument yesterday. I would like to talk about it with you and see if we can find a good compromise.”
- “You seem upset. Has it something to do with me?”
- “I don’t necessarily agree with your approach, but I think it is important that you do it your way.”
- “I might be wrong.”
This type of communicator will hold eye contact with you, without trying to stare you down. They look at you in a confident, but not in a condescending way.
They use a calm, clear tone of voice.
When they talk to you, their facial expressions will remain neutral; there are no signs of displeasure or even 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 any kind of aggressive “fighting 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.
What This Means for the Relationship
An assertive partner listens to. They try to understand your point of view.
They will rarely, if ever, interrupt you while speaking, even when you are fighting. If they do, they usually apologize on the spot.
They don’t make threats. They won’t blame you.
The assertive partner can deal with rejections and won’t hold them against you later. They take responsibility for themselves.
At the same time, they are not afraid to tell you what is on their mind. They will not let build stuff up, but voice their frustrations. But they will do so in a neutral, non-confrontational way.
Assertive partners have a direct communication style. They say it how it is. You know where you stand with them.
In general, assertive partners strike a balance between listening and speaking. They take in what you say, but they also share.
Here is how well the four communication styles in relationships combine.
Passive + Passive
Very common, but also one of the most problematic pairings — no one is saying what is bothering them. Problems are just swept under the carpet, things don’t get done.
In the short term, this can feel comfy. There is never any friction. In the long term, this relationship type becomes less and less comfortable. Frustrations accumulate. You feel like you are by yourself, as there is no truthful communication between the two partners.
Aggressive + Passive
Another common pairing. It seems dysfunctional at first, but it can work surprisingly well.
With this constellation, the aggressive partner is free to vent their anger, the passive partner is used to dealing with these outbursts.
It might sound like an unfair deal to the passive partner, but it not necessarily is. Aggressive partners also tend to be more decisive. This allows the passive partner to just tag along. They don’t have to make any difficult decisions, which they dread.
Also, the aggressive partner tends to be aggressive towards everybody, not just them. Often, the aggressive partner will be triggered by attacks on the passive partner. As a result, they will act all protective of the passive partner, which many enjoy.
However, aggressive partners will also attack their passive counterparts for not stating what they want, and might eventually come to discount them.
Aggressive + Aggressive
Obviously, in a relationship with two aggressive communicators, it is going to get loud. There will be daily fights.
States of harmony between the two partners will only last for a short while; the next confrontation is always around the corner.
It has to be said though — deep down, many aggressive communicators enjoy such relationships. They need the emotional rollercoaster ride. They need the aggressive sex that ensues. They might claim, “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 keeps his calm and withers the storm.
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 can now revel in the ensuing mellowness. Their assertive partner is still there, calm and composed, ready to talk sense.
For the assertive partner, this pairing is less than ideal. 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 the aggressiveness on display sexually attractive, but rather 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 starts a dire downward spiral.
There are two options here. The partners can break up. Alternatively, the passive partner can completely retreat into themselves, to the point where they become a living zombie. Nothing touches them anymore, even the most vicious barbs of their passive-aggressive partner.
Aggressive + Passive-Aggressive
I sometimes 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, and to many people, it would be. But, you need to keep in mind — both of these partners enjoy lashing out. They need the fights to feel alive. Without them, their existence would be dull.
Passive-Aggressive + Passive-Aggressive
You see this combination at the workplace a lot. Colleagues will smile at each other and act all jovially, but then badmouth each other behind each other’s backs.
If they both lean more toward the aggressive side of the spectrum, they will constantly direct barbs at each other. Each meeting will become a barely contained growling match.
Passive-Aggressive + Assertive
The assertive partner will try to communicate clearly and get the passive-aggressive partner to do the same. But the passive-aggressive partner can’t. They are too caught in their ways.
This in turn angers the passive-aggressive partner even further. In a sense, they are made look silly by their assertive partner. They get to feel how childish acting they are in comparison to their assertive partner.
Needless to say, for the assertive partner, this situation is highly unfulfilling. What they desire — a calm, straightforward exchange of information — cannot be had here.
Assertive + Passive
The assertive partner will clearly state what they want and need, 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; there is no feedback loop. They desire honest input, but nothing is coming back.
The passive partner tends to enjoy this arrangement much more. They feel happy about being with someone strong and self-assured, while at the same time being listened to, should they ever decide to speak up. Getting steamrolled is not an issue.
Assertive + Assertive
Here, you have two partners who like to talk through issues calmly. Both can listen to each other and take the other person’s point of view into account. Both are ready to make sensible compromises.
Is it the perfect relationship, as the couple therapists like to claim?
On a communicational level, yes. It is highly rewarding to have such constructive interactions with your partner. You will enjoy being around each other. There will be lots of harmonious Sunday afternoons.
But in the bedroom, it’s a different story.
If you are that understanding of each other, it’s hard to get the juices flowing. We need some level of friction, even interpersonal aggression, to get truly aroused. An assertive + assertive 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” communication style, while all others fall short. End of story.
Each of these communication styles has its place, depending on the context and the person in front of you.
For example, aggressive communicators are not afraid to fight. They know how to get their needs met.
Passive-aggressive communicators are often also able to get what they need, but without having a full-out confrontation. They will simply wear the other side down. This is smart on their part, as it saves them energy on many occasions.
The passive communicator might more easily wither large-scale confrontations, without wasting too much energy on them. Also, they will rarely make enemies.
In fact, in many situations, the assertive communicator is not the most effective person in the room.
Also, if you were an assertive communicator with everybody — especially with other non-assertive communicators — you would never have time again. You’d be too busy being understanding of everybody’s problems.
There is a reason why these other communicative styles exist — given the right circumstances, they work.
Bottom line — communication styles in relationships are not a black-or-white thing. There is no one “right” approach; it all depends on the context.