In the early days of romantic relationships, communication seems easy. Couples can’t wait to spend time together, making the effort is a cinch and there’s bags of positive energy. It’s common for new couples to engage in reinforcement behaviour – a trouble-free dance of give and take, with “me-toos” regularly said. We are under the influence, according to science, of chemical changes in the brain [pdf], which not only create natural highs, but also mask flaws.
Once romantic relationships become established, that early effort of really engaging with a partner can diminish. Communication can become more surface-based. Couples may become more time-poor, pay less attention to intimacy, or settle into comfortable habits and, without realising it, unhelpful patterns of behaviour. Instead of active listening and showing interest in your partner, conversations may be more about reports and updates, such as “how were the kids today?” or “how was work?”. Without realising it, couples may not make eye contact as often, give each other a hug, or kiss goodbye. Communication potentially becomes less rewarding and more of a chore.
It’s not uncommon for couples in established relationships to get into the habit of making assumptions about how the other person is feeling, which can lead to misunderstandings and disagreements. Each person in the relationship also has their own “default setting”, ie the habitual or automatic reaction state that seems to happen without thinking. So imagine that your partner says they’re going to be working late and won’t be home for dinner. An automatic thought might then be to believe that your partner doesn’t care about you and eating together is not a priority. Not understanding where one another is coming from, and assuming the worst about each other can cause unnecessary grief.
Poor communication is a common long-term relationship issue. An interesting study by the Office for National Statistics suggests that on average couples spend about 150 minutes a day together [pdf], and of this shared time, just over a third is spent watching TV, half an hour eating, and about 24 minutes doing housework together. This doesn’t leave very much time for interacting with each other without distractions; to meaningfully share, resolve and negotiate.
It is perhaps not surprising then that a survey by mental health professionals suggested communication problems to be one of the most common factors that leads to divorce (65%), followed by couples’ inability to resolve conflict (43%).
Other established, long-term and familiar relationships in our lives – with mobile phone companies, gyms and banks – can deteriorate in a similar way, particularly when good communication is lacking.
Research commissioned by the Guardian and TSB found that one of the top three things people surveyed wanted from their bank was good customer service. This is telling, because when you break down what customer service actually means, it’s all about great communication, as part of cultivating and maintaining a two-way relationship.
You wouldn’t necessarily think that the relationship we have with our bank is an emotional one, but it is. Talking to customers helps banks identify their needs and build a relationship. Studies suggest that people often prefer brands that offer a level of personalisation, which often boils down to treating customers as people, not commodities – and it starts with the simple act of using their name. Then there’s the reciprocity principle – do something nice for your customers, and they’ll do something nice back – whether it’s a positive tweet or a glowing Facebook comment.
However, not engaging with people in a way that makes them feel valued can cause the relationship to sour. It’s not uncommon for people to get stuck in a cycle of unhelpful communication patterns, which doesn’t make for happy connections.
So, whether you’re wrestling with a romantic relationship or one with your bank, if it is less than satisfying, then there are ways to improve communication straight away to get things back on track.
Four tips for win-win relationships
- Create a specific time to talk to each other – put it in the diary and commit to it.
- Respond don’t react. When we’re angry, what comes out of our mouths tends to be negative emotions often connected to the past. This can trigger an equally negative response in the other person. Instead, count to 10, slow down your breathing, take the feelings out of it, and be specific about what you want to say.
- Diffuse effectively. When something isn’t right, there is a tendency to blame, shout and escalate a bad atmosphere. Try refocusing your energy and stating your intention instead.
- Practise actively listening. Rather than sitting passively, use effective body language, make eye contact, face each other and nod. Repeating key words or phrases back helps the other person know that you’re taking in what they are saying.
Source: The Survey was conducted by Ipsos Mori on behalf of the Guardian and TSB. A sample of 1,932 British adults aged 18+ took part in the survey, across England, Scotland and Wales. Fieldwork was conducted using a face-to-face CAPI method, and took place between the 8th and 20th of December 2017. Data has been weighted to known population figures for Great Britain.