How Happy Couples Speak

Studies show that the way you speak to (and about) your significant other says a lot about how satisfied you are with your relationship. Here, we explain how the happiest couples “walk the talk.”

By Elise Nersesian

f you’ve been together for a while, you may think you’ve mastered the art of communication. After all, he knows you hate it when he forgets to call when he’s late and you know better than to talk on the phone during the game. But new research conducted by the University of Chicago found that, by and large, couples have better communication skills with
Being close to someone doesn’t prevent you from communicating well.
strangers than they do with each other. “We found that people don’t specify their needs when speaking to their partner because they assume that the other person understands them more than they actually do,” says the study’s author, Kenneth K. Savitsky, a social psychologist at Williams College in Williamstown, MA. “Being close to someone doesn’t prevent you from communicating well, but it does prevent you from gaining insight into what you say.” Here’s how the happiest couples end up chatting their way into a lifetime of conversations together.

They share similar speech patterns
Similar speech styles aren’t just a sign that you’re spending too much time together — it may also mean that you’ve found your match. Couples who speak using the same tone, inflection, and key phrases in their speech patterns are happier than those with different speech patterns, according to research published in the September 2010 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “The results were more powerful than we expected,” says study author James Pennebaker, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “When people speak in similar styles, it means they’re synced up and think the same way — which has a great effect on their happiness levels and the longevity of their relationship.”

They speak in terms of “we,” not “me”
Everyone knows a couple that says things like: “We’re so excited,” “We love that movie!” or “We hate to sleep late.” As annoying as these lovebirds may be, they know something that you don’t — which is that couples who regularly use words like “we,” “us,” and “our” are happier than those who tend to say “I” or “me” instead. Researchers at University of California at Berkeley listened in on the conversations of 154 couples and found that those who use the word “we” when referring to their relationship bicker more effectively and experience more relaxed heart rates and lower blood pressure during conflict than those who continually say the word “I.” The study suggests that using language that represents a shared identity helps couples face and overcome challenges together. “You can’t really change the course of a relationship simply by changing the pronouns you
Having substantial conversations helps people find meaning in a complex world.
use,” says the study’s coauthor, Robert Levenson, Ph.D., who runs UC Berkeley’s psychophysiology lab. “However, monitoring the use of ‘we’ in everyday language can reveal how well a relationship is progressing.”

Their conversations include more substantial topics
Do your conversations lean more toward issues commonly found in Us Weekly or CNN? According to research published in the journal Psychological Science, people are happier when they spend more time discussing topics with meaning rather than making small talk. That’s not meant to imply that it’s bad to analyze your shared love of mushroom fajitas and Ricky Gervais with your sweetie, but sprinkling in more meaningful topics (foreign news, where you want to be in five years, etc.) will boost your bond through conversation. The study showed that people who were the most satisfied spent only 10 percent of their conversations on idle chit-chat, while unhappy people used 28.3 percent of their talk time to discuss lighter topics. “Having substantial conversations helps people find meaning in a complex world, which is related to higher happiness levels,” says study author Matthias R. Mehl, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “What’s more, deep conversations may lead to a shared understanding of the world between people, facilitating a sense of connection and belonging.”

They coin secret, cutesy terms together
When you call your guy “cutie” or “baby,” you’re not just being corny — you’re sealing your bond as a couple. According to research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, couples that use “insider language” (calling each other pet names, sharing inside jokes, and code words that send secret messages) are more satisfied with their relationship than those who aren’t as playful. Study authors surmise that having a shared private language creates an “us against the world” feeling, which promotes closeness in the relationship.

They’re grateful for each other
You’ve known since kindergarten that saying “Thank you” is the right thing to do. But when you say it to your spouse, you’re also investing in your long-term happiness. A study published in the journal, Personality and Individual Differences, found that people who express gratitude toward their partners on a regular basis are happier with them and vice versa. “Most interestingly, we found that if you just think grateful thoughts without expressing them, you still experience the same degree of marital happiness,” says study author Cameron Gordon, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington.

Elise Nersesian has written for Redbook, Stuff and other national magazines.
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