Have you ever been on a date and stumbled into an awkward silence? How to communicate better is something even the most committed couples work at, and for those of us who have a mild cellphone addiction (or have a relationship with someone who does), that work is harder than ever. It's easy to swipe through a lull in conversation, only to have meaningful interpersonal interaction become a thing of the past. Before you know it, you're that couple who consists of two heads staring down at two screens.
Don't be like that! Communication is "the indispensable key to a long and happy marriage," according to Karl Pillemer, Ph.D., the gerontologist who surveyed more than 700 experts (aka older people who've amassed tons of life experience) for his book, 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage . Actually, communication is the single-most mentioned topic in Pillemer's entire study: "When asked about a particular problem in marriage, the experts were very likely to mention communication: lack of it as the source of the difficulty, and getting better at it as the solution."
Do you come from a family of shoddy conversationalists? Don't worry. Pillemer's compiled a handful of tips from the experts — some of them gruff "tough old guys" who were, at one point in their lives, strong, silent types — that will help you hone your communication skills, so you and your partner's relationship will go the distance.
ABT = Always Be Talking
Even if you neither of you is especially garrulous, you and your partner must be able to communicate verbally with each other. According to Pillemer, that's non-negotiable: "Regardless of your own level of reserve and conversational style, once you are in a marriage ... add one more marital vow: Have and hold, care for each other in sickness and health — and talk."
Life will be long and boring if you don't have anything to say to your partner, but talking can also be straight-up crucial toward more than keeping that loving feeling alive. The experts agree that " ...you simply must be able to talk rationally, constructively, and freely about important issues, or the marriage is not likely to be happy or even to last."
News flash: Your partner is not a mind reader! Forget about those couples you know or see on Instagram or Facebook who seem to totally, intuitively get each other —even they don't know what their better half is thinking. Pillemer's experts finds this "mind reader assumption" to be a huge source of discontent in marriages: "Through years of talking and observation, we come to feel that we understand our partners as well as we do ourselves ... We expect them to intuitively understand what's going on in our heads without our communicating about it." Fortunately, the way to avoid falling into the mind reader trap is simple: as one pair of experts suggests, ask questions about what your partner is saying to verify you've actually understood their thoughts. Don't be shy about clarifying.
...And Listen to Your Partner's Answers
Even if those answers are not immediately forthcoming. The experts agree that any change in communication style and any drought of conversation is likely indicative of something burdening your mate (or you). Be a receptive and a responsive listener, for the sake of your partner and your relationship.
Believe Your Partner Is Someone You Want to Impress
And speak like a lady or a gentleman. "Use simple good manners," says Pillemer. That means basic civility, the sort of thing you'd (hopefully) practice in public or professional situations: saying "excuse me" or "thank you," asking a question politely rather than making a blunt demand — these niceties (when said sincerely: no drippy sarcasm!) can ensure you and your partner communicate respectfully.
Eat Something, Even If Food's the Last Thing On Your Mind
In other words, don't get hangry. How many times have you and your partner gotten into an argument pre-dinner? Pillemer's experts report that a surefire way to diffuse or avoid conflicts is to make sure both parties aren't coming to important conversations with rumbling stomachs.
Be Honest —or At Least Mostly Honestly
In order to build trust in your relationship, an honest environment must be cultivated from the get-go. This can be scary, especially if you're used to telling little white lies to yourself (I only drank half of that frappucino, I swear!), but, according to Pillemer's experts, a marriage is built on truthfulness. "'If you start off on the right foot and you have nothing to hide, honest becomes just routine,'" says Trevor Garfield, eighty-one. "'... that's what a marriage is — two people who are honest with one another.'" Note, however, that honest needn't mean caustic or cruel. A little tact and a few well-selected ambiguities can go a long way toward constructive communication, especially over a potentially contentious issue.
And Remember: Actions Can Speak Just As Loud As Words
Yes, the experts stress that open dialogue is the foundation of a good marriage, but they don't want you and your partner to overlook the other ways you two communicate. Whether it's canoodling or... noodling, listening to your partner's nonverbals can't be overestimated. After all, as expert Lucia Waters notes, "Sometimes you have to do more than talk."
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