Communication Skills: Not as Important as You Think

Communication skills are not the keys to improve your relationship

Couple talking on a sofa
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Many people would mention "communication" as a key element in a happy and healthy marriage. While communication is definitely important in any relationship, this article will discuss why "communication skills" are often overrated in terms of what is needed to save a relationship in trouble.

What Happens When Relationships Are in Danger

Perhaps you have sought advice for your relationship and have been told to practice communication skills, such as "starting your sentences with 'I'," for example.

According to one model of therapy, Emotionally Focused Therapy, communication skills alone will do you little good if you are trying to save a struggling relationship.  ​

Relationships in danger are characterized by a threatened emotional connection. When partners cannot connect with each other on an emotional level, they become extremely distressed. Their brains do not process information clearly, stress hormones such as cortisol flood their bodies, and they experience a range of negative emotions.

Maybe you have experienced one of those blood boiling fights with your partner in which you do not feel seen, heard or important. It can feel extremely frustrating, hopeless and impossible to resolve. In that moment of disconnect, the words one chooses to use are much less important than the emotional message that is being conveyed.  

Your Right and Left Brain and What They Have to Do With Your Relationship

Verbal communication skills and language are regulated by the left hemisphere of your brain.

Emotions, conveyed by non-verbal expression, such as tone, body language, and facial expression, are managed by the right side of the brain. People are often said to be right brained or left brained depending on which hemisphere is dominant for them.

Partners are constantly communicating with each other emotionally, using their right brains, whether they recognize it or not.

It often matters much more how something is said than what is said. Verbal communication skills involve the "what" that is being said and involve the left hemisphere of one's brain. 

As stated above, a distressed relationship is about a strained emotional connection. When that emotional connection is strained and a person's system is in distress, all of the verbal and communication skills in the world are unlikely to do any good. This is because the emotions are more significant and will override any verbal content message a partner tries to convey. In other words, we cannot talk ourselves out of our emotional experiences.

Social Pain Is Real

Being unable to connect to your partner emotionally can be painful. In fact, social pain is registered in the same part of the brain as physical pain. The experience of social pain, such as being unable to connect to one's partner, is experienced as dangerous by the human system, much like physical pain. Partners with a distressed connection often feel like they are in survival mode. Communication skills are not especially helpful when someone is just trying to survive.

What Is Needed for a Relationship in Danger if Not Communication Skills

If a relationship is in trouble with a distressed emotional connection, the first thing necessary is to restore that emotional connection.

Partners need to be emotionally aware and take risks with each other to be vulnerable by sharing their underlying emotional experience. Partners need to feel important, cherished and valued by each other.

This vulnerability and emotional honesty can be difficult to practice, especially if couples have been caught in negative cycles of escalating negativity over the years. Counseling can, therefore, be extremely helpful in helping partners re-connect if they are struggling to do this on their own.

Emotionally focused therapy is one form of couples therapy that helps partners create a strong emotional connection with each other and enjoy a healthy relationship.

An emotionally-focused therapist will not teach partners communication skills, but will help them establish a connection in which they feel loved, understood, supported and important to each other.

Communication skills are great, but when a relationship is struggling, the solution has to go a bit further beneath the surface.


Johnson, S. (2013) Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships. New York: Little, Brown and Company.