Couples often ask for advice about for how they can improve their communication. “If we could just find better ways to communicate with each other,” they say, “we would have a much better relationship.” So they seek couples therapy, they go to workshops for learning new relationship “skills;” and they read the latest books and articles about communication techniques and strategies.
But If better communication could create more intimate, loving and sustaining relationships, why are so many couples unable to find what works? The answer is that they may be on a “fool’s errand.” Good communication, per se, doesn’t make relationships better. Rather, good communication is a feature, an outcome, of having created a positive, sustaining relationship to begin with; not it’s source.
Some new research, as well as observational studies of couples that experience positive, lasting and energized relationships can help explain this. First, a recent study from the University of Georgia looked at the connection between communication and the degree of satisfaction that couples report. It found that good communication in itself could not account for how satisfied partners were with their relationships over time.
The researchers recognized that other factors must be influencing couples’ satisfaction; and that good communication can result from those other factors. According to Justin Lavner, the lead author of the study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, the more satisfied couples do communicate better on average than those who are less satisfied. That’s expected: “In general…the more satisfied you are, basically, the better you communicate.”
However, in the majority of cases, communication did not predict satisfaction. “It was more common for satisfaction to predict communication than the reverse…satisfaction was a stronger predictor of communication. These links have not been talked about as much,”he added. “We have focused on communication predicting satisfaction instead.”
The Roots of Positive Relationships
That may be why so many couples seek better communication only to discover that it doesn’t help much. Positive relationships — one’s that sustain vitality and intimacy at all levels over time
– aren’t created by applying various techniques or strategies; or “tools” that you can use, like new computer applications. Rather, they are rooted in the less tangible attitudes and “wavelength” of the two partners; in how they engage each other emotionally, spiritually and physically in their relationship, each day.
When you look at relationships from that perspective, it’s understandable that other recent studies find links between positive relationships and several ways they impact both mental and physical health, and overall wellbeing. For example, a study published in Social Personality and Psychological Science found that couples who feel valued by their partner, who feel cared for and understood in their “core,” have better sleep. Similarly, a Florida State University study found that couples are more satisfied with their relationships to begin with get more sleep than those who are less satisfied.
That study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology highlights the fact that the way you engage your partner in your ongoing relationship will affect your overall wellbeing in many ways. The quality of sleep is a good indicator of both your mental state and overall health. An example of the latter is a study showing that happy partners experience better health, especially during middle age and beyond. That study, of nearly 2000 heterosexual couples from Michigan State University and published in Health Psychology, found that people with happy spouses were much more likely to report better health measures over time.
Be “Radically Transparent”
Of course, creating and maintaining a sustaining intimate relationship isn’t easy. But in my view it can be practiced. Some ways to do that include you and your partner examining and revealing how each of you experiences your own self within the relationship. How you see your own life “evolution” over the years. Are you in synch with each other’s vision of life together? If there are gaps, how can you address them and deal with them?
I’ve written previously about the perspective and practice of “radical transparency,’” which can help couples assess those and other questions openly and honestly. What I wrote included this description of the two parts of radical transparency:
- One is being open and revealing about yourself to your partner. This includes letting go of inhibitions or defensive feelings you might be harboring about what you haven’t revealed; but also acknowledging your reluctance to do so.
- The flip side is being open and receptive to your partner’s reality—his or her feelings, wishes, desires, fears…and differences from yourself. It means openly encouraging your partner to express them to you.
Studies have found that people who are truthful about themselves experience more relationship intimacy and wellbeing, and better romantic relationships. Overall, studies find that positive connection and intimacy will grow from being transparent about what’s inside of you; but not from making negative judgments about your partner and focusing on them in your communication.
Radical transparency can be painful; perhaps relationship-threatening. But it’s more likely to open the door to strengthening the foundation of your relationship. You’re saying, in essence, “This is me. This is who I am.” It’s about showing your whole person—your fears, desires, needs, hopes, and experience of life. And it’s about showing your desire to know your partner and be known in return—emotionally, spiritually, and sexually
A version of this article also appeared in Psychology Today
Credit: CDP Archive