Are you having trouble talking about your feelings with someone you love? Does your partner run the other way any time you bring up your feelings? If so, this may be good news for you: According to recent research, talking about your feelings is not the only—or even necessarily the best—way for couples to maintain healthy, happy and successful relationships.
I have written a lot about how hard it can be to talk about feelings. As I wrote in my last post, if you have difficulty communicating your feelings, you're not alone. Even if you are great at it, you may still feel like you’re not getting them across to the people who matter to you. Or you may be with someone who simply doesn’t like “touchy feely” conversations. But a number of studies have concluded that words aren’t actually necessary for meaningful and intimate interactions.
Here are 6 ways to improve emotional communication and deepen your relationship, without ever even mentioning "the F Word" (feelings):
1. Make small talk. You may think talking about a TV show or even the weather is far from connecting emotionally, but these supposedly insignificant details are actually more likely to improve your close emotional ties to your partner than a so-called "deep" discussion of your feelings. American psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan developed an approach that he called “detailed inquiry,” in which he suggested that therapists gather information about all parts of a client’s life. In those tiny details, Sullivan believed, could be found clues to who a person is. More recently, John Gottman and Janice Driver researched this idea with a group of married couples and found that “the mundane and often fleeting moments” that are part of a couple’s daily life have a greater impact on the health of the relationship than do apparently emotionally meaningful and serious conversations. (I wrote about this in an earlier post, and in my book, Daydreaming: Unlock the Creative Power of Your Mind.)
Bored when your partner recounts the details of a plumbing problem or the movie he or she watched last night? You may think you know all of the details of your partner’s life. Maybe it really feels like too much information. But it’s a way of getting closer, according to Gottman and Driver. Even making a grocery list together can be a way of sharing space and time, and can become a way of showing love—for instance, when you add your partner’s favorite cookies to the list without being asked.
You may feel like asking for tiny details will seem rude, intrusive, or critical. But keep in mind that you’re not asking for details to catch your partner doing something wrong. You’re letting them know that you care about them and are interested in what interests them. Maybe you won’t learn anything new—but you will communicate a genuine interest in the small details that make up your partner’s day. And it’s those insignificant moments that make up the reality of our lives.
2. Don’t just ask about small insignificant experiences. Share them. A recent study published in Psychological Science found that we feel closer to others when we can talk about experiences we have in common. I have found, for example, that couples having relationship difficulties can take a first step to repairing a rupture by talking about their children, especially if they can be encouraged to speak of pleasant moments or cute incidents. Of course, since many conflicts occur around the rearing of families, you will have to be careful not to bring up moments that will trigger further discord. But even if something you say does start a conflict, you can find a shared moment by recognizing that you were both trying to figure out the best solution for a child that you love.
These shared experiences do not have to be in words. A second study reported in Psychological Science showed that words are not necessary for the shared feelings to improve a relationship. Just doing something at the same time—riding bikes, watching a movie, or eating dessert, intensifies both pleasant and unpleasant experiences. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a tiny action can be worth even more. Reach out and take your partner’s hand. Or if one or both of you are not the hand-holding type, simply stand so that some small part of your body makes contact, even if only for a few seconds. These are times when talking about the experience can actually destroy the moment of intimacy. Just share it in silence.
3. Listen carefully. Knowing that you are being heard is one of the experiences most likely to cement a feeling of connection to another. One way to improve your listening skills is to use a technique called “active listening.” This is a form of listening in which you acknowledge not only that you are listening—as with a nod of the head or saying “uh-huh"— but also that you understand what is being said. Understanding can be communicated with a smile, a word or a phrase that captures what they’re saying, or even with a simple “I understand”—if you really do understand. Interestingly, active listening can also involve interruptions for clarification or even disagreements. If you interrupt, be sure to ask permission. “Sorry, can I ask you a question?” is a reasonable way to do it. Then ask something that is clearly related to clarifying what your partner is telling you. If you disagree with the overall concept or with their handling of a situation, wait until they have finished talking before you express disagreement. But if you are not sure that they have accurately described something, you can ask for more clarification—without accusing them of lying, of course.
4. Ask questions, and don’t assume that you know the answers.
5. Talk about yourself, but don’t take all of the air. Finding a healthy balance between talking and listening is difficult in most relationships, but even harder as you get to know each other, so it’s important that you both get a chance to talk and listen.
6. Once you’ve become aware of some of the hidden shared moments you’re having with your partner, see if you can find ways to increase your daily amount of insignificant experiences together. If one—or both—of you are not so good at putting your feelings into words, or even describing the mundane details of your day, don’t worry. Go back to numbers 1 and 2 on this list. Simply spending time together doing unimportant and supposedly meaningless activities—reading the paper, listening to music, watching TV, or doing laundry—is far more important to the health of a relationship than talking about feelings. It may even be more important than talking at all.
Shared Experiences Are Amplified by Erica J. Boothby, Margaret S. Clark, & John A. Bargh. Psychological Science December 2014 vol. 25 no. 12 2209-2216 doi: 10.1177/0956797614551162
Daily Marital Interactions and Positive Affect During Marital Conflict Among Newlywed Couples by Janice L. Driver and John M. Gottman. Family Process Volume 43, Issue 3, pages 301–314, September 2004.Article first published online: 9 AUG 2004 DOI: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.2004.00024.x
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