Sex & Sociability

Question and commentary on connections, both sexual and social

Couple Communication Styles: Tell-Alls vs.Say-Nothings

Withholding can be a style preference and not dishonesty.

Many years ago my Master’s Thesis research looked at agreements couples make regarding sexual conduct outside their relationship.  What I was  searching for was some potentially workable model other than monogamy, cheating, or a wide open “anything goes” arrangement. What I discovered instead was a fascinating dichotomy in communication styles which not only proved an invaluable tool for me as a couples’ counselor but gave me some insight into my own relationship at the time.

Some people, men or women, regardless of their views on physical fidelity took pleasure in the sharing of every sexual jot and tittle to cross their mind or their body.  If the couple had some sort of open relationship Partner B might come back home after an adventure and describe it in detail to Partner  A. Wild love making often followed, perhaps due to sexual titillation but due also, my respondents told me, to the feelings of special closeness such disclosures created: “She may have sex with that other person but it’s me she comes home to and tells about it.”

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Even when the couples were monogamous the sharing of fantasies about other people or of escapades from before these two met could make for not only stimulating pillow talk but a sense of enhanced closeness: “See how much I love and trust you.  I prove it by my complete honesty.”

Those who felt their relationship was enhanced by telling and hearing such revelations I called Tell-Alls. Often Tell-Alls espouse the notion that complete and total honesty is the best or only way to make an intimate relationship work.  These people, who sometimes can lose intimates at an alarming rate, may also believe that the cause of these break-ups lies in the other’s unwillingness to hear the truth, not in their own heavy-handed bluntness in insisting on conveying it.

Say-Nothings are those who hold the opinion that discretion is the better part of valor.  They ardently believe” what you don’t know won’t hurt you or, what’s even more important, won’t hurt me.” A night out on one’s own away from the loved one might consist of bowling or balling, but private recreational activities are just that – private. Often a guiding principle of relationships between Say-Nothings is “Don’t ask a question to which you are not willing to hear an honest answer.”

A Say-Nothing might answer such an indiscreet challenge as “What are you thinking about when we make love?” with “You.  Always and only you” or some such reassuring sweet talk when what he or she is really thinking is “My thoughts and fantasies are private.  Let’s keep it that way.”

Either communication style works in any kind of intimate coupling as long as it suits both partners.  Two Tell-Alls can regale each other with hot stuff, whether history or current happening, fantasy or fact, or some creative combination, and feel all the better, closer and happier, for their sharing. Two Say-Nothings can sit side by side on the settee tending their knitting while mentally rolling triple X scenarios with a cast of thousands.  As long as they remember to smile at one another and murmur an occasional sweet something, no one’s the wiser and contentment may reign supreme. It is when you have a Tell-All in an intimate relationship with a Say-Nothing that friction is likely.  One does not want to hear what the other wants to say; one is unwilling to tell what the other is wanting to hear.  How can they come to a mutually satisfying definition of intimacy? They need to sit down and have a painfully honest discussion about who wants to tell or hear what, particularly about sex.  By the way, although my research was confined to discussions of sexual activity and thoughts, the same communication styles are applicable in other potentially divisive areas such as money. Good communication between intimates lies not only in what is disclosed but equally in how and when it is disclosed, and just as importantly in what is not. Do you know your own preferred style?  Your partner’s?  Oddly, what you prefer to share with an intimate will probably change over a lifetime of love and lovers.  A tune-up is never a bad idea.

Isadora AlmanM.F.T., is a Board-certified sex, marriage, and family therapist, lecturer, author, and syndicated advice columnist of "Ask Isadora."

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