The indie-pop ballad Say Something by A Great Big World with Christina Aguilera offers a heartfelt and painful confession of loss. Its lyrics, grounded by the main line of the chorus, “Say something / I’m giving up on you,” walk the listener through the unwanted end of a relationship and inspire questions about saying, speaking, and talking in romantic relationships. How important is communication in relationships? And what kind of communication is healthy?
Songs are examples of cultural products (Morling & Lamoreaux, 2008); their content both reflects and influences culture, making it worth our time to consider their messages or themes. In Say Something, the narrator pleads for a partner to communicate but seems to expect silence. He or she is saying goodbye, but would prefer a different ending to the story (“I’ll be the one if you want me to / Anywhere I would have followed you”). This painful one-sided communication is consistent with findings in relationship science that underscore the importance of mutual, responsive communication for relationship well-being. Starting before marriage, couples begin to establish a set of communication patterns that affect the quality of their relationship. Those couples who report more negative communication (e.g., denial, withdrawal, negative emotion) are at greater risk, five years later, of marital distress and divorce (Markman, Rhoades, Stanley, Ragan, & Whitton, 2010).
Say Something also tells us a bit about the role of communication in relationships. The line, “I’m sorry that I couldn’t get to you,” is an accurate reflection of how communication creates closeness. One type of communication, self-disclosure, seems to be particularly effective at creating closeness in relationships. Self-disclosure refers to the revealing or sharing of personal information, such as emotions, perspectives, or personal thoughts (Laurenceau, Barrett, & Pietromonaco, 1998). People who self-disclose to a receptive, understanding partner experience a growth in intimacy or closeness (Laurenceau et al., 1998). Both members of the couple have roles to fill in communication so that it benefits the relationship.
Say Something is not the only song that resonates with the culturally-relevant concern of what to say and what not to say in relationships. John Mayer’s “My Stupid Mouth” tackles the problem of regretting what you say; he vows, “I’m never speaking up again / it only hurts me.” Is it ok to keep quiet in relationships, when what you have to say isn’t what your partner might want to hear? What does self-censorship do in romantic relationships?
Mayer’s lyrics capture the practice of self-silencing: when individuals silence aspects of themselves out of fear of losing a close relationship (Jack, 1991). Consider his statement, “I'd rather be a mystery than she desert me.” Keeping quiet can maintain a relationship, but at a cost. Self-silencing is associated with giving in too often during conflict, having poorer communication skills, and tending to be less happy in relationships (Harper & Welsh, 2007). People who self-silence also tend to have partners who are perpetually frustrated when trying to communicate with them. It might be healthier to heed the advice that Mayer offers in his later work, Say, and “Say what you need to say.”
Words can celebrate, hurt, or heal a relationship, but what is said (or not said) is only one component of a relationship: behaviors, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and expectations are also powerful players. Perhaps what we say or don’t say reflects the interaction patterns established in our past attachment and relationship histories, mirrors our current feelings about a relationship, but reveals what we want for the future of a relationship.
Harper, M. S., & Welsh, D. P. (2007). Keeping quiet: Self-silencing and its association withrelational and individual functioning among adolescent romantic couples. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24, 99-116.
Jack, D. C. (1993). Silencing the self: Women and depression. Harper Collins.
Laurenceau, J. P., Barrett, L. F., & Pietromonaco, P. R. (1998). Intimacy as an interpersonal process: the importance of self-disclosure, partner disclosure, and perceived partner responsiveness in interpersonal exchanges. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1238-1251.
Markman, H. J., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Ragan, E. P., & Whitton, S. W. (2010). The premarital communication roots of marital distress and divorce: the first five years of marriage. Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 289.
Morling, B., & Lamoreaux, M. (2008). Measuring culture outside the head: A meta-analysis of individualism—collectivism in cultural products. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12, 199-221.