Me, You, & Us

Examining the interplay between our love lives and our identities

Can We Talk?

How couples speak to each other is at least as important as what they say.

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We know that how we talk to our romantic partners matters. Say the wrong thing in the wrong tone at the wrong time and it can trigger a fight. Conversely, a kind word or compliment can go a long way toward making your partner feel loved and cared for.

Psychologists have long known that the way we talk to each other can have important implications for the functioning, happiness, and stability of our relationships. For example, researchers at The Gottman Institute (2000) identified four ways that couples can talk to each other during conflict that predict whether or not the couple will divorce with high levels of accuracy. Specifically, they observed a large group of newlyweds and determined that married individuals who criticize each other, complain, stonewall (withdraw from the conversation), or become defensive in a fight are significantly more likely to split up than those who engage in other verbal tactics when discussing sensitive matters. Similarly, other research has found that married couples who use the pronoun we more often than the pronoun you often have lower divorce rates and report being happier in their marriages (Seider, Hirschberger, Nelson, & Levenson, 2009).

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Other recent research has started to look at language use in relationships at the dyadic, or couple, level rather than just examining one person’s language use in the relationship. Specifically, psychologists have become interested in the role that similarity between partners’ language use might play in relationship satisfaction and stability.

We know that similarity is generally a good thing in relationships. People prefer to date people who are more similar to them, and generally become more similar to their partners over time (McCrae et al., 2008). Furthermore, when individuals mimic each other’s body posture and facial expressions (without being aware that they are doing it) they are more likely to be attracted to each other than to a potential partner with low levels of mimicry (Karremans & Verwijmeren, 2008). 

Based on these earlier studies, Ireland and colleagues investigated whether linguistic similarities between partners would predict: the likelihood of initiating a new relationship among single individuals; and the stability of ongoing romantic relationships (Ireland et al., 2010). Specifically, they focused on the similarity of the grammatical structure of partners’ speech patterns rather than the content. This language style matching (Ireland & Pennebaker, 2010) involves using prepositions, pronouns, and other structural components of language in similar ways across the duration of an interaction. They found, in a study of single individuals participating in a speed-dating event, that individuals were more likely to want to talk to a speed-dating partner again in the future if their language styles had matched during the interaction when they first met. Similarly, existing couples who had highly similar language styles in their instant message conversations were significantly more likely to be together three months later than were couples with less similar language styles.

Researchers have suggested that language style matching predicts positive relationship outcomes because it reflects couples’ shared psychological states. More plainly, couples who match language are more likely to be “on the same page.”

This shared view is proposed as the driving force behind similarity of language and its relational benefits.

 

Carrere, S. Buehlman, K. T. Gottman, J. M., Coan, J. A. Ruckstuhl, L. (2000). "Predicting marital stability and divorce in newlywed couples". Journal of Family Psychology 14 (1): 42–58

Ireland, M. E., Slatcher, R. B., Eastwick, P. W., Scissors, L. E., Finkel, E. J., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2011). Language style matching predicts relationship initiation and stability. Psychological Science, 22, 39-44

Ireland, M. E. & Pennebaker, J. W. (2010). Language style matching in writing: Synchrony in essays, correspondence, and poetry. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 549-571.

Karremans, J.C., & Verwijmeren, T. (2008). Mimicking attractive opposite-sex others: The role of romantic relationship status. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 939950.

McCrae, R.R., Martin, T.A., Hrebickova, M., Urbanek, T.,Willemsen, G., & Costa, P.T. (2008). Personality trait similarity between spouses in four cultures. Journal of Personality, 76, 11371163.

Seider, B.H., Hirschberger, G., Nelson, K.L., & Levenson, R.W. (2009). We can work it out: Age differences in relational pronouns, physiology, and behavior in marital conflict. Psychology and Aging, 24, 604613.

Erica B. Slotter, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and assistant professor at Villanova University in Villanova, PA.

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