When I asked couples [in the Happy Families Survey] about the factors that mattered most in families, I provided several options but also left room for people to write in answers. The most common write-in vote was communication. Or, in the words of forty-five-year-old Dikendra: "Communication, communication, communication and, of course, communication. Oh, let’s not forget the most important: communication." Think she was trying to tell me something? Of course, many of the adults in the survey were describing general communication within the family. I’m on board with that. But if you can’t learn good communication styles as a couple, you’ll have a hard time imparting them to your offspring.
What Exactly Is Communication?
You may be thinking, If so many people wrote in "communication," why wasn’t it one of the survey choices? It is simply because communication has too many different definitions, and offering the simple word "communication" on a multiple-choice survey might have resulted in misleading conclusions. Many people think "talking to each other" means communication, and it does. But how come when I tell my wife, "Of course I’d love to go T. J. Maxx with you, honey!" she gets upset with me? Because she knows I really don’t want to go to the store, and she can hear it in my tone. So I guess tone is also another way to communicate. Spoken words, verbal tone, and written messages are all ways of communicating. In fact, the form of communication with the greatest impact is in what we say—without a word.
Communicating Without Words
I first saw examples of powerful "nonverbal couple talk" early in my life while watching my hands-down-favorite TV show, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Yeah, now you know I’m ancient, but I like to think that my advanced age gives me perspective. Anyway, back in the 1960s, every week the host introduced me to new animal species whose members very often had fascinating ways of relating to each other. Usually it involved sticking their noses in some body cavity, but depending on the animal, it could include ramming heads, showing off colorful plumage, or picking through the other’s hair for little bugs. There was no doubt in my mind that these animals were connecting with each other through their actions in a far more direct and intimate way than they would even if they did possess the power of speech.
Which brings me to human animals. Humans are rare among animals in that their main mode of connecting is through verbal interactions: e-mails, phone calls, letters, songs, and heart-to-heart conversations that continue well into the night. And they are the only species to commit their speech to the written word. So it’s natural to think that communication = words. But it ain’t necessarily so.
Take it from a guy who makes his living by asking couples to talk about their relationships: just because someone is uncomfortable using words to express feelings and needs, even joy and appreciation, doesn’t mean that the person isn’t communicating.
Although men and women may not show their feelings by ramming heads or showing off colorful plumage, they sure can communicate profound feelings through their actions rather than their words. How? To borrow a line from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, let me count the ways:
1. Holding hands 2. Giving back rubs and neck rubs 3. Looking at each other from across the room 4. Crying in a partner’s arms 5. Letting a partner cry in his or her arms 6. Buying gifts or sending cards 7. Taking the spider out of the living room while the other stands on the sofa with her (or his!) eyes screwed shut 8. Offering a coat or jacket to help warm up a partner 9. Having a cup of hot chocolate ready when a partner comes in from shoveling the walk
These examples of nonverbal language are endearing ones that we all need to use more often and need to be on the lookout for when they’re used by our mates. But nonverbal communication is not always the language of love. Scowling at your mate’s social faux pas, pacing by the door waiting for your partner to pick out just the right outfit for a simple dinner out, and looking the other way when he or she tries to get your attention are also all forms of communication.
I’m sure you already know that these negative forms of communication are a lot less beneficial to the health of your relationship than the positive ones. In fact, they can be downright destructive—even to your physical health. Researchers found that "negative marital interactions," including nonverbal clues like eye-rolling, lead to decreases in immune function. In fact, James Coan, a neuroscientist from the University of Virginia, concludes, "How often someone rolls their eyes at you can predict how often you need to go to the doctor."
Dr. John Gottman has used his "Love Lab" to quantitatively assess what happens in marriage, and finds that couples continuously send each other "bids" all the time (both verbal and nonverbal)—up to a hundred times over a simple dinner. The bid may be any spoken statement ranging from "You’re cute!" to "When did the gardener come?" And it can be a nonverbal statement, such as a sigh, a downtrodden look, or a raised eyebrow. Simply put, a bid is an effort to draw the other person into a connection. It’s the first step in communication.
How a person responds to a bid is one way of determining the quality of the relationship. Husbands in stable relationships ignore 19 percent of their wives’ bids; husbands headed for divorce ignore them 82 percent of the time. Women tend to be better at responding to bids, ignoring only 14 percent if they’re likely to stay married and 50 percent if they are headed for divorce.
So to strengthen your family life today, focus on your patterns of nonverbal communication with your partner. Keep count of how many positive signals you send versus the negative ones. Assuming that you’re shooting for the ideal five-to-one ratio of positive gestures (smiling, laughing, giving high-fives or "bumps," and nodding agreement) to negative (ignoring, sneering, eye-rolling, glazed-over expression), the result of one day’s tally will give you a good idea of where you stand on the communication issue—regardless of whether or not you sit down to have those heart-to-hearts.