Here are six ways to improve emotional communication and deepen your relationship, without ever even mentioning “the F Word” (feelings):
1. Make small talk. You may think talking about a TV show or the weather is far from connecting emotionally, but these supposedly insignificant details, like a “deep” discussion of your feelings, can improve your emotional ties to your partner. American psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan developed an approach that he called “detailed inquiry,” in which he suggested that therapists gather information about all parts of a client’s life. In those tiny details, Sullivan believed, could be found clues to who a person is. More recently, John Gottman and Janice Driver researched this idea with a group of married couples and found that “the mundane and often fleeting moments” that are part of a couple’s daily life have a greater impact on the health of the relationship than do apparently emotionally meaningful and serious conversations.
Bored when your partner recounts the details of a plumbing problem or the movie he or she watched last night? You may think you know all of the details of your partner’s life. Maybe it really feels like too much information. But it’s a way of getting closer, according to Gottman and Driver. Even making a grocery list together can be a way of sharing space and time, and can become a way of showing love—for instance, when you add your partner’s favorite cookies to the list without being asked.
You may feel like asking for tiny details will seem rude, intrusive, or critical. But keep in mind that you’re not asking for details to catch your partner doing something wrong. You’re letting them know that you care about them and are interested in what interests them. Maybe you won’t learn anything new—but you will communicate a genuine interest in the small details that make up your partner’s day. And it’s those insignificant moments that make up the reality of our lives.
2. Don’t just ask about mundane experiences. Share them. A recent study published in Psychological Science found that we feel closer to others when we can talk about experiences we have in common. I have found, for example, that couples having relationship difficulties can take a first step toward repairing a rupture by talking about their children, especially if they can be encouraged to speak of pleasant moments or cute incidents. Of course, since many conflicts occur around the rearing of families, you will have to be careful not to bring up moments that will trigger further discord. But even if something you say does start a conflict, you can find a shared moment by recognizing that you were both trying to figure out the best solution for a child that you love.
These shared experiences do not have to be in words. A second study reported in Psychological Science showed that words are not necessary for the shared feelings to improve a relationship. Just doing something at the same time—riding bikes, watching a movie, or eating dessert, intensifies both pleasant and unpleasant experiences. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a tiny action can be worth even more. Reach out and take your partner’s hand. Or if one or both of you are not the hand-holding type, simply stand so that some small part of your body makes contact, even if only for a few seconds. These are times when talking about the experience can actually destroy the moment of intimacy. Just share it in silence.
3. Listen carefully. Knowing that you are being heard is one of the experiences most likely to cement a feeling of connection to another. One way to improve your listening skills is to use a technique called “active listening.” This is a form of listening in which you acknowledge not only that you are listening—as with a nod of the head or saying “uh-huh”— but also that you understand what is being said. Understanding can be communicated with a smile, a word or a phrase that captures what they’re saying, or even with a simple “I understand”—if you really do understand. Interestingly, active listening can also involve interruptions for clarification or even disagreements. If you interrupt, be sure to ask permission. “Sorry, can I ask you a question?” is a reasonable way to do it. Then ask something that is clearly related to clarifying what your partner is telling you. If you disagree with the overall concept or with their handling of a situation, wait until they have finished talking before you express disagreement. But if you are not sure that they have accurately described something, you can ask for more clarification—without accusing them of lying, of course.
4. Ask questions, and don’t assume that you know the answers.
5. Talk about yourself, but don’t take all of the air. Finding a healthy balance between talking and listening is difficult in most relationships, but even harder as you get to know each other, so it’s important that you both get a chance to talk and listen.