The breakup of a relationship, or emotional strains within one are amongst the most stressful things we encounter. The difference between a relationship that works and one that doesn’t often centers on one thing: communication. The breakdown in communication is one of the main reasons couples seek help and support.
The central feature of a happy and harmonious relationship has nothing to do with wealth or success. It comes down to social connections and communication. Most people invest surprisingly small amounts of time socializing. During the working week the average person may spend as little as 30 minutes a day just speaking about things other than work. At the weekend this bumps up to maybe an hour or more a day, so if you know you’re above these time frames you’re doing quite well.
Some people seem to speak quite a lot, but it doesn’t mean the content or quality of what they say is effective in terms of maintaining positive relationships. Professor Shelly Gable, a social psychologist with interests in the quality of social interactions and close relationships, has identified that the way we communicate during the good times may be more influential and important than the way we interact during the bad times. For example, when your partner announces they have good news there are at least four ways you might approach the situation.
In this first example the partner receives good news by appearing subdued and unenthusiastic. They may pass a glance and say something like, ‘that’s nice,’ and return to whatever it was they were doing. What they say isn’t destructive but neither is it particularly constructive. It’s what Gable describes as ‘passive constructive.’ A more ‘active constructive’ response might be to give full attention, give a hug and really turn on the praise. ‘That’s fantastic news. We should do something to celebrate. I’m so proud of what you’ve done.’
Positive relationships are under far greater threat when our communication is passively or actively destructive. An announcement of receiving a bonus or promotion or a new job is turned around. Instead of praise a passive destructive response might be along the lines of ‘yes, well I had a pain of a day and had to cover the shift with three staff off sick.’ Worse still, an active destructive response might be along the lines of ‘oh that’s great, I suppose you’ll be coming home after work even more angry and stressed than before.’
In previous posts I’ve mentioned something we call the positivity ratio. In case you haven’t come across it I think this is a good time to mention it again. The positivity ratio refers to what it takes to maintain a strong healthy relationship. The ratio is 5:1, which in everyday language means we require at least five positive emotions to every single negative emotion. It’s a concept first put forward by Barbara Fredrickson, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. Now I’m aware that this ratio has been challenged (debunked some might argue) as one that is difficult to prove or support but my feeling is that it still serves as a good general rule of thumb rather than perhaps an empirical measure. The more positive we are within a relationship the stronger the bonds that holds it together.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.