Communication Currents

Practical Advice from Communication Experts

February 1, 2011
Interpersonal Communication

As Valentine’s Day (February 14th) approaches, people often seek advice on how to overcome relational difficulties and find lasting love.  It is with that goal in mind that we invited communication scholars to share their thoughts on how to achieve success in long-term, loving relationships. What follows is the relational wisdom they shared. 


As Communication scholars it is too easy to say that relationships always benefit from more communication when what is more likely needed is quality communication. What should we be doing? First, don't assume your significant other can read your mind. If you want something, speak up. Second, if you have a problem with your mate, talk to your mate. Dishing with your fifty best friends isn't going to fix things. Third -- and women can be particularly bad about this -- if you don't want to hear the answer, don't ask the question. It's not nice to "test" your loved ones. 

Julie Woodbury, Hamline University


Relational attraction is based, at least in part, on the assumption that the partners are together voluntarily. As relationships become more committed (e.g., exclusivity, marriage), the experience of the relationship may seem more characterized by extrinsic constraints, such as the expectation (no longer a voluntary choice) that the partners will spend time talking together. In this way, what was once voluntary and therefore intrinsically satisfying has now become an expectation, providing little intrinsic satisfaction. To avoid this paradox, couples should focus on why they came together in the first place-not because they had to, but because they wanted to.

John Waite Bowers, Professor Emeritus, University of Colorado-Boulder

I could only speak English and he, Japanese. We fell in love anyway. “But HOW?” you might question. True, the linguistic barrier creates equivocation that is not always amusing. For instance, once I declared that I needed a “break”. I meant a break to rest, he thought “break-up”. And like normal couples do, we argued fiercely about it but then used every nonverbal skill and every 1-syllable word to find understanding and to make up. Communication is like a roulette wheel or a soufflé or an HTML code. You keep trying and trying until you reach success--even if it means communicating like a 2-year-old.

Mylen Yamamoto, California State University, Los Angeles


Here are three pieces of advice to help couples in a long-distance dating relationship. First, in addition to using the phone or computer to interact with each other, don’t forget the power of the hand-written, snail-mailed letter. Second, discuss your expectations for the relationship: How often will you two talk? Visit? Can you see other people while apart and if so, what are the parameters for that? And, will the “distance” part of the relationship ever end? Finally, take it slow if the “distance” does end. There is a big difference between living together during short-term visits vs. full-time.

Katheryn C. Maguire, Wayne State University


Demonstrating Partner-Centeredness: As relationships increase in intimacy, partners gain more and more information about each other.  Partners expect that information to be retained, considered, and adapted to.  Even if you are not generally adept at being other-oriented (social decentering, empathizing, or perspective-taking), there is an expectation in intimate relationships that partners understand each other well.  Failure to demonstrate understanding and appreciation of a partner’s perspectives, feelings, etc. can decrease a partner’s relational satisfaction.  Know what is important to your partner and engage in behaviors that reflects that understanding. For Valentine’s Day, if your partner is trying to lose weight, buy flowers; don’t buy candy.

Mark V. Redmond, Iowa State University


As a budding interpersonal communication scholar, I have come to realize there are many different angles through which to view the prism of long-term, meaningful relationships. Flexibility, collaboration, and a co-constructed sense of shared hope and commitment are all vital to relational growth and sustenance. However, the moments in between being-in-this-together are fraught with the self-centered motives and the dialectical tensions that mark us all as social (yet individual) beings. To move through life with another person lovingly and devotedly may require both an aptitude for maintenance/collaboration and a realization that things aren't always perfect, culminating in a mindset of shared understanding and intimacy that goes beyond what we see in films and television shows portraying "romance."

Brandon Hensley, Millikin University


Become a List-Maker: Make a list about why you love your partner. And, don't just make the list. Share it with your partner. Remember it throughout the year. Add to it whenever your mate does something that reaffirms your love or makes you love him/her even more. Then, share it again. Telling your partner why you are in love with him/her is an excellent relationship maintenance tool. It allows you to express yourself emotionally to the person you love, it helps you remind each other why you are together in the first place, and it just feels good to hear wonderful things about yourself.

Jennifer Gill Rosier, James Madison University

"I Don’t Date": Narratives of dating are part of the romantic fantasies and expectations encouraged by popular culture and regularly “sold” to young people. One way to steer clear of these and see if a person is really interesting to (or interested in) you is to tell others “I don’t date.” If after explaining that, a person still wants to get to know you or be your friend or share time with you, you can at least undermine dominant dating expectations (e.g., men pay for entertainments, sex is on the horizon), and see if you actually like each other.

Valerie Peterson, Grand Valley State University


Defining love is a big challenge for the romantic couple. When you hear "I love you" given in good faith what are you being told? Is it: I am emotionally charged by you? I'm obsessed with you? I'm committed to you? I find you to be ethically-wonderful? Whatever the love, partners in long-lasting relationships accept the love of the other person, gain from it, and give in return. It is the complete cycle of reciprocation. You must give to gain and accept to be accepted. My suggestion: find a very good (i.e., ethical) person and you will find his/her beauty easy to love. 

Cory Williams, Concord University


One piece of advice I have for engaged couples is to check their humor/laughter compatibility. The ability to laugh at yourself and the situations you find yourself in is as a couple is an important relational coping strategy. Compatible humor should be nurtured for a long lasting, endearing, fun-filled personal relationship. Let’s look at a few quick examples. Have you ever sat down together to watch a comedy and you hear your spouse laughing at the dialogue in a way that makes you want to just get up and walk away? Your idea of funny just isn’t the same. And what about your laugh? Does your spouse enjoy the sound of your laughter? Humor compatibility may seem trivial compared with other types of communication problems that can occur in romantic relationships. But as time goes on, you will find the joy in the relationship and sense of intimacy can fade when you are not laughing at each other’s little jokes.   

Claire Sullian, University of Maine


If you work with language, you may, albeit inadvertently, sometimes read too much into your significant other’s utterances. I’ve created trouble by dissecting words and playing with semantics. This simple rule cured me: “If something can be interpreted two ways, always assume your partner means the nicer one.” Simple. Don’t assume a loved one is on the attack, and if you are in doubt, seek clarification by asking. So, next time someone says, “You look lovely today,” don’t wonder if that means he or she thinks you look ugly on other days. Rather, simply accept the compliment with a smile.

Natalia Cherjovsky, Full Sail University


If it starts in fighting…it usually ends in fighting. Love does not conquer all, and lust is at best a temporary relief. The love cultivated between two people in the initial months of dating is not the love that holds people together; it is the love we build memories on and look fondly upon. There is plenty of healthy, inevitable fighting to come in time, but it shouldn’t happen right away. When those first months consist of fighting, the relationship is doomed. Long-term relationships last because, for the most part, they are boring. Relationships that rely on roller coasters of emotions don’t work, at least not for the long run.

Rachel E. Silverman, University of South Florida


When in a long-term relationship and faced with a partner’s inevitable flaws or annoying habits, go for the blinders whenever possible! Selective attention can be a fabulous relational maintenance behavior. And, whatever you do, do not communicate about your partner’s annoying flaws or habits with anyone else. You’ll only cement the awfulness of the behavior(s) in your mind. And, then someone else will be looking for the flaws and possibly pointing them out to you too!

Courtney Waite Miller, Elmhurst College


If you met your partner on an online dating site, or you’d like to, you should consider having a conversation about when to remove your profiles from the site. If your aim is to have a lasting relationship, keeping an online dating profile active makes it tempting to see if there is an appealing alternative to your partner. It might also send the message to your partner that you’re keeping your options open. The conversation could be awkward, but it will likely be better than the one after your partner discovers you’ve been sending virtual winks to someone else.

Bridget L. Long, Pennsylvania State University


Ask one more question: Don’t be afraid to ask “one more question.” During the initial stages of relationship development, you’re determining if this person is someone you’d like to spend your extra time with. So, make sure you’re clear about what you want in a relationship and trust your gut. Often, people avoid asking a key question for fear that the response will counter what they’re hoping for. But, that question is likely gnawing at you, and the answer is necessary because it will provide you with essential compatibility data as you continue dating. Don’t avoid the question and don’t ignore the answer.  

Stacy A. Peterson, College of Notre Dame of MD


Although it is contradictory to the old adage, the one piece of relationship advice that I most often tell my students and my friends is that it is okay to go to bed angry. Continuing to fight into the wee hours of the morning often results in rehashing the same arguments while becoming physically and mentally weary. Although it may be difficult to sleep, this downtime allows for both parties to "cool down," reflect and oftentimes gain a new perspective regarding the conflict and/or the relationship. Thus, a more constructive conflict may continue in the morning.  

Elizabeth Ribarsky, University of Illinois-Springfield

Work to save the face of your partner in communication with them. Learn what triggers their embarrassment or shame, and while it may be tempting to use those triggers against them,
especially in the heat of a conflict, avoid doing so. Stopping to consider how to save their face, either before engaging in a threat (for example, thinking, “Will what I say hurt their feelings or embarrass them?”) or after a face threat has occurred (for example, “Wow, I really hurt them. What can I say to make it better?”) will, over time, create a more positive, supportive relationship. 

Aimee E. Miller, University of Hartford


Advice for the Singles Crowd – Consider the Source. Supportive communication is the heart of any good relationship. Yet, before we can have supportive communication with another, we must first have it with ourself. Our self-talk determines to a greater or lesser extent how we experience our relationships. The process of examining our intrapersonal communication challenges us to work on our self-limiting perceptions. If we want to have a terrific partner in our life, we must first be one to ourself.

Gina Marcello Persson, College of Saint Elizabeth


Prior to marriage, people often discuss wedding plans and future goals in terms of work and children, but not as many people discuss their perceptions of what it means to be or what they expect of a “wife,” “husband,” or marital “partner.” Perceptions of a “girlfriend” or even “fiancé” versus “wife” are often different for both people involved. Undisclosed expectations of how a person should act and what they should be like when their role or label changes needs to be discussed before exchanging “I do’s” for better knowledge of each other and what to expect of marital life together.

Christa Tess, Minneapolis Community & Technical College

The best advice I ever received came directly from my mother-in-law Helen Mitnick, a 92-year old woman from the Bronx and now West Palm Beach....Be kind, be patient, listen, laugh a little, and when things get dicey, sit facing away from each other as you feel a fight coming on and then continue the fight—not looking at each other! She promised me that if her son and I did this, we would invariably stop fighting as laughter or at least silly sighs would start to come out of us, rather than harsh ugly words. Years later, as a communication scholar, I found the same advice in several IPC journals and texts. See, what we teach often really does come from sources of wisdom much greater than anything our field has produced.

Andrea Mitnick, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania


Couples should work to actively celebrate their relational history. Communication researchers have studied the importance, specifically, of storytelling in marital relationships. Talking about especially happy times in the relationship, such as when they fell in love or became parents, can potentially remind couples of what attracted them to each other. Talking about times when they felt as though they were members of a marital “team” can remind couples of the cohesion and unique connection they have with each other. Even talking about difficult times that they survived together can remind the couple of their ability to successfully face adversity together.

Eve-Anne M. Doohan, University of San Francisco


One temptation qualitative researchers in particular must resist is also something to avoid in the quest for love. A priori assumptions can prove hazardous for research projects and searches for romance. If you already claim to the findings, the (re)search process becomes futile. You will look for romance in one form, and be blind to unexpected ways it could have shown up in your life, only to be missed. Get of all the stuff you think you know into one box in the back of your mind. Only then can you be open to what a new relationship might bring.

Timeka N. Williams, University of Michigan


Talk about sex. Most couples don’t, even though sex is cited as a major conflict in romantic relationships. Talking about sex can reduce conflict and increase intimacy. Couples should start by sharing the role of sexual communication in their upbringing. They should talk about how that communication and modeling from their families has impacted their own behaviors and expectations for sex – this will help set a framework for what both people expect in terms of intimacy and sex in their relationship. Talking about sex will also help with relational issues outside the bedroom by encouraging open communication and increasing intimacy.

Heidi Croatt, Minneapolis Community and Technical College


Managing conflict in a successful relationship: Conflict management is an important factor contributing to successful, loving relationships. Couples should realize that disagreement in a relationship is normal and that it can actually help relational partners learn about each other. However, for this to occur, conflict must be managed constructively. Couples must focus on the issues in the conflict without attacking each other. Each partner should contribute how he/she views the problem, without ridiculing the other’s viewpoint. This way, working to resolve issues can become a means of understanding and learning about partners’ differences and growing as a couple, instead of allowing conflict to damage the relationship.

David H. Kahl, Jr., Penn State Erie, The Behrend College


The piece of advice I offer is simple but powerful: Do not assume; do ask. We are constantly interpreting, assessing, and evaluating the messages that our partners communicate  – it’s part of being human. The downside of this is that it’s dangerously easy to leap to conclusions about our partner’s meanings and intentions. Making assumptions and reacting to those can lead to unnecessary conflict.  A more productive route is to put on our researcher/ethnographer hats and use questions (instead of complaints or accusations) to move forward. Asking something like “What did you mean when you…?” can be a good way to start.

Tabitha Hart, University of Washington


Parents of young children face many demands on their time, and it can be easy to not prioritize or even feel guilty about taking time for themselves or as a couple. It is important for parents to make time to reconnect with their partner and their children will benefit from a positive relationship between parents.

Catherine Gaze, Elmhurst College


The key to relational longevity stems from the display of affection and the use of relational currencies such as direct relational statements, self-disclosure, touch, nonverbal expressiveness, listening, sex, and gifts. When we first get into a relationship we use all of these and more to show our lover we care about them; however, as the relationship progresses we stop using a lot of these. We fall back to using the only ones that work on us. But what one needs to hear or see is not always what their partner needs. That disconnect between currencies used and currencies needed causes couples to struggle.