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Communicating: Why it's More Successful With Strangers Than With Your Spouse
A new study shows that communication with strangers is more likely to hold water than with the ones closest to us. Here's why.


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When you're talking with your spouse, too many of us assume they know what we mean without explanation.


If you sometimes feel that you are married to a stranger, you may be right! In a new study, "The Closeness-Communications Bias: Increased Egocentrism among Friends versus Strangers," couples who live together tend to overestimate their ability to communicate. When polled these couples made claims like: "We think alike," "I can read his mind" or "We understand each other."

You tend to draw on intimate knowledge of a spouse or even a friend to make sweeping assertions based on an illusion of understanding him or her. However, many conflicts happen when someone close to you fails as a mind reader. If research has anything to say, it’s that the ball is in your court—how clear and specific is your speaking style, and have you omitted a necessary detail or two especially when the concept is ambiguous?

People tend to believe that they communicate better with a spouse or a close friend than with total strangers. Boaz Keysar, co-author of the study and a psychology professor at the University of Chicago calls it a "closeness-communication bias." The study indicated that in one experiment, participants who followed direction of a friend were more likely to make egocentric errors—look at and reach for an object only they could see—than were those who followed direction of a stranger. In two additional experiments, participants who attempted to convey particular meanings with ambiguous phrases overestimated their success more when communicating with a friend or spouse than with strangers. Keysar and his colleagues argue that people engage in active monitoring of strangers’ divergent perspectives because they know they must, but that they "let down their guard" and rely more on their own perspective when they communicate with a friend. In short, you assume your spouse will know what you mean, whereas you explain (or listen) more precisely when communicating with a stranger.

Here is how this might play out in your marriage or close relationships. You are busy, stressed or immersed in your own thoughts. You don’t focus on the other person and you certainly don’t consider how your words will be received by your good friend or beloved. For example:

* "You never take out the garbage," might be literally interpreted and therefore countered with, "This is not true. I took out the garbage two months ago when you had that stomach virus."

* "You shouldn’t have bought me this gift." Next time he won’t and you will be angry.

* "I feel so hot in here." He thinks you want sex and, what you really want is a new, more powerful air-conditioner.

The next time you interrupt your spouse with something like, "I know what you are going to say. I have heard it before," just stop! You might not have. Most people tend to take those in their inner circle for granted, skipping a necessary step or two in clear, concrete communication. We ought to distance ourselves a bit and respectfully explain our thoughts the way we would to a stranger. Taking your near and dear for granted—linguistically—might signal that you take him or her for granted in other ways as well.

Debbie Mandel, MA is the author of "Addicted to Stress: A Woman's 7 Step Program to Reclaim Joy and Spontaneity in Life," "Changing Habits: The Caregivers' Total Workout" and "Turn On Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul," a stress-reduction specialist, a radio show host and has been featured on radio/ TV and print media. To learn more visit: www.turnonyourinnerlight.com.


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Over 1 million couples turn to Hitched for expert marital advice every year. Sign up now for our newsletter & get exclusive weekly content that will entertain, educate and inspire your marriage.



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