It’s no secret that communication is a vital ingredient in a healthy marriage or relationship. This isn’t the first time you’ve heard that, and it’s certainly not the first time I’ve said it (I wrote an entire book on how to improve communication skills in marriage and long-term relationships). But today I’d like to talk about another aspect of how couples communicate, one you may not have given much thought to:
How you and your spouse or partner communicate when you’re not saying a thing.
One of the special, almost mysterious things about intimate relationships is that the intimacy that you share with your partner does more than bind you together—it shuts the world out, in a way. You create a cocoon exclusive to the two of you, one that allows you to retreat from the unpredictable, frenzied world outside from time-to-time. This happens naturally, as you and your love share inside jokes, memories, experiences that are unique to you and therefore that have meaning to you.
You might be in the grocery store and see a display of kiwi fruit that—without a word—sends the two of you into hysterics (while onlookers gape and scratch their heads). The people watching couldn’t possibly know about the time you made a romantic dinner for your partner; the romance aspect of the entrée was so successful that you and your mate breezed off to the bedroom and forgot the kiwi tart in the oven. Fast-forward a couple of hours to a minor kitchen fire. A neighbor had spied the smoke and, unbeknownst to you, called the fire department. You and your partner—glowing, but not from the kitchen flames—scrambled to get dressed while fire-fighters axed the door open.
So while the two of you are laughing at the kiwi, you’re jointly reliving the experience, and the rest of the world has no idea what’s so funny. It’s part of what you’ve created together, just the two of you. And that glance and the ensuing laughter didn’t require explanation or explication or interpretation…no words at all.
Speaking lots doesn’t guarantee quality communication in marriage or long-term relationships!
There’s a mis-conception that says that a good communicator within a relationship must be very wordy. The truth is, there are some very loquacious people out there who are poor communicators when it comes to their mates. Why? Because they may talk and talk, but they don’t listen. Effectively communicating with your spouse or partner is not just about telling; it’s not just about stringing your words into sentences and unspooling them so your mate hears them. It’s about give-and-take. It’s about leaving room for a giver and a receiver.
This is not to say that words are not important!
(That would be quite a feat, wouldn’t it, if I tried to convince you that words were unimportant, within an article made up of words?) Couples who rarely speak to each other are missing an important means of connection. It is true that some experiences transcend words (they’re so big or so special or so moving or so difficult that words cannot possibly capture them), but still, words are the basic building blocks of how we relate to others—at home, at school, at work—and our job is to do the best we can with them. But I don’t want you to overlook the non-verbal aspect of your communication with your partner, which may be a very rich landscape indeed.
Both verbal and nonverbal communication foster the connection between you and your spouse or partner.
Levels of communication vary from interaction to interaction
Anyone who has set the goal of improving communication skills knows that there are different levels of communication. There’s a very superficial level that we use with people we interact with just once or for very proscribed reasons. It wouldn’t be realistic or appropriate to attempt to deeply communicate—sharing private thoughts and emotions—with people we’ve just met and people we’re not likely to see again.
The more superficial the type of communication, the more it relies on words. After all, giving a cashier who’s ringing up your groceries a glance and expecting him/her to interpret it would be kind of goofy. Likewise, assuming you can arch an eyebrow at a barista who’s never seen you before and that that arched brow will answer his/her question about what kind of milk you want in your latte would be silly.
But you communicate that way (non-verbally) with your partner all the time, perhaps without thinking about it or even realizing it. This isn’t to say you have to become ultra-aware of how you communicate non-verbally; rather, it’s something you can celebrate. And if you reflect on this and find you don’t use non-verbal cues to communicate with your mate, you might want to add some into the mix.
Good Communication Skills: 5 types of non-verbal communication that feed intimacy
1) Facial expressions
Human faces are incredibly expressive, and we’re naturally attuned to noticing and reading the expressions of others. Some examples of expressions you share with your partner that allow you to speak without using words: smile, smirk, eye roll, arched brow, pout, frown (and of course there are varying degrees of frown, some are soft or quizzical, others are harsh or reproachful).
2) Shared glances
How often do you and your partner lock eyes in a social setting and through that shared glance communicate something? Probably more often than you think.
Perhaps you’re at a party where a friend is making an ass of himself. The two of you might share a look that no one else would notice as out of the ordinary, but through sharing the glance, it’s almost as if you know what the other is thinking.
And maybe later in the evening you share a look that communicates Let’s get out of here already, and then you start saying your good-byes. Those quick, wordless bits of eye-catching might even be occurring beneath your awareness, but they are important nonetheless.
Touch connects people and offers wordless reassurance that perhaps can’t be achieved in any other way. Babies that are not picked up and held tend to do poorly; they are missing the vital ingredient of touch.
For many, sexual experiences are beyond words. Part of the reason for this is the extreme emotion physically connecting with another brings up, and also because touch becomes its own form of language in those moments.
You and your partner use touch all the time, of varying degrees. Affectionate, reassuring, supportive, playful, erotic. It is one of the most important ways in which you “speak” to each other.
For example: shaking your head, nodding your head, shrugging your shoulders, waving a hand dismissively, crooking a finger beckoningly. Gestures between you and your partner serve as a kind of economy of language: you can say a lot without saying a word.
5) Non-verbal sounds
Such as: hums, moans, groans, tongue-clucks, tsks, laughter. One of the first things you do when you enter into a relationship with someone (and this happens naturally) is that you learn how to interpret their personal bevvy of sounds.
So the next time you wonder about whether you and your partner are communicating enough and have good communication skills overall, don’t forget to factor in your “beyond-words” communication, too. An intimate relationship is a rich landscape, one that does not end at words.
Wishing you and your partner all the best,
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Featured [top] images “Attractive Young Couple” by Serge Bertasius and “Man and Woman Enjoying Coffee” by Imagerymajestic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)