1. Get It Half Right When Disagreements Come UpYou can be petty, defensive, completely incapable of communicating how hurt you are, but as long you can work in a joke, you’ll be all right. That’s what research led by Matthew Johnson, PhD, professor of psychology at Binghamton University, found after recruiting 172 newlywed couples and having them talk about tense topics in their relationships. While the couples were talking, the researchers watched for signs of humor, affection or being engaged in the discussion, and for anger or contempt. Then they analyzed how each partner was communicating—were they being direct about their feelings, making sure they understood what their partner was saying, accepting responsibility if they did something wrong, or were they being critical and demanding, acting uninterested and refusing to take any blame?
After tracking the couples’ relationship satisfaction for the next four years, the researchers noticed something unexpected: As long as both partners displayed some humor or warmth during the conflict (not 100 percent rainbows and butterflies), being vague or critical didn’t matter. It was only in couples where one partner showed just negative emotions and was really bad at communicating that satisfaction suffered. Couples with truly terrible skills who still showed a lot of affection for each other fared the same as those with stellar communication. “This is really good news,” says Johnson. “You can be awful at solving your problems, but you’ll be okay as long as neither of you flies off the handle.”
2. Watch One of These 102 Movies a WeekIt seems almost too good to be true, but a weekly movie date could be just as beneficial for your relationship as a couple’s communication course, suggests research in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. The caveat: After the movie, you have to analyze the relationship you just watched and talk about how it compares with your own. In the study, engaged and newlywed couples watched one movie with an intimate relationship as a major plot point every week for a month then discussed it using questions provided by the researchers (everyone started with a Two for the Road watch-and-talk). Three years later, their divorce risk was as low as couples who had gone through lectures and workshops designed to boost their communication or support and empathy skills. (Divorce rates for the three groups were 11 percent, while the rate for couples who received no treatment was 24 percent.) Comparing the trials and tribulations of a movie couple with your relationship makes your own problems feel more approachable and safe to talk about, says Rebecca Cobb, PhD, one of the authors of the study and a professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. “Just make sure you’re focusing on patterns and processes in the relationship you’re watching,” she says. “Not what they fought about but how they handled the disagreement.” The researchers made it easy to give the strategy a try at home. Here’s the list of movies the researchers recommend (from The Way We Were to Something’s Gotta Give) and the questions they gave to participants.
3. Strengthen This Area of Your Relationship InsteadWe used to think that any couple where one always nagged and the other backed away from the conversation was headed for certain doom—and seasoned relationship researchers agreed with us. But recent research from the University of Georgia says not so fast. As long you each feel appreciated, you can protect your relationship from the effects of that communication style (known as demand-withdraw).
Think of bad communication as having a bum knee. You can undergo knee surgery (i.e., fix the communication problems) or you can work on building up the surrounding muscles to help stabilize and support the knee (practicing appreciation toward each other). The first step, according to Allen Barton, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate at the Center for Family Research at the University of Georgia and the lead author of study, is figuring our where your partner feels like their efforts are going unrecognized, something he did personally after the study. He and his wife were doing dishes after dinner (yes, he was helping), when he asked if there were areas where she felt under appreciated or undervalued. She said there were things she took care of on a daily basis that she didn’t think Barton was even aware of (as a stay-at-home mom of two little kids, we’d imagine that list is probably longer than she let on). “You don’t know what you don’t know,” says Barton. “But now I make more of an effort to say thanks for everything she does, including what she does when I’m not there.”