Couples often seek advice on how they can improve their communication, because they think it will strengthen their relationship. They may seek couples therapy, attend workshops to learn new relationship “skills,” and read books and articles about communication techniques and strategies.
Douglas LaBier Ph.D. a business psychologist and psychoanalytic psychotherapist, is the Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, DC. In his role as a business psychologist, Dr. LaBier consults to senior executives, leaders and career professionals on ways to create greater alignment between personal development and a positive leadership/management culture. He has a long-standing interest in the psychology of the career culture, emotional development
Editor: Nadeem Noor
If improved communication really could create more intimate, loving, and sustaining relationships, then why are so many couples unable to find a communication method that works? It might be because they may be on a fool’s errand. Good communication doesn’t make relationships better; good communication is a feature, and an outcome, of creating a positive, sustaining relationship—not the source of a good relationship.
New research, as well as observational studies of couples that experience positive, lasting and energized relationships, helps explain this. A recent study by researchers from the University of Georgia looked at the connection between communication and the degree of satisfaction reported by couples. It found that good communication in itself could not account for how satisfied partners were with a relationship over time.
The researchers recognize that other factors must influence couples’ satisfaction, and that good communication can result from those factors. According to Justin Lavner, lead author of the study, which was published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, more-satisfied couples communicate better on average than those who are less satisfied: "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 try to improve communication, only to discover that it doesn’t change their relationships very much. Positive relationships—ones that sustain vitality and intimacy at all levels over time—aren’t created by applying new techniques, strategies, or tools. Instead, they are rooted in the less tangible attitudes and “wavelength” of the two partners—how they engage each other emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
Other recent studies also reveal links between positive relationships and the ways they impact our mental and physical health, and overall well-being. For example, a study published in Social Personality and Psychological Science found that couples sleep better when they feel valued by their partner—both cared for and understood in their “core." Similarly, a Florida State University study found that couples that are more satisfied with their relationship 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 with your partner affects your overall well-being in many ways. Another recent study shows that happy partners experience better health, especially during middle ageand beyond. That study, conducted by researchers at 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 it is something you can practice. You and your partner can examine and reveal how you each experience your own self within the relationship: How do you see your own life “evolution” over the years? Are you in sync with each other’s vision of life together? If there are gaps, how will you address them and deal with them?
I’ve written about the perspective and practice of “radical transparency," which can help couples assess such questions openly and honestly; this includes the following description of the two parts of radical transparency:
- Being open and revealing about yourself to your partner. This means letting go of inhibitions or defensive feelings you might be harboring about what you haven’t revealed, and also acknowledging your reluctance to do so.
- 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 these to you.
Studies have found that people who are truthful about themselves experience more relationship intimacy and well-being, and better romantic relationships. Overall, studies find that positive connection and intimacy grow when you are transparent about what’s inside of you, and not from making negative judgments about your partner and focusing on them in your communication.
Radical transparency can be painful, and perhaps viewed as a threat to your relationship. But it’s more likely to put you on the path 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.