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Scientific studies about relationships fascinate me, and I devour them hungrily, especially when they give big, fancy-sounding names to everyday experiences. One published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology describes something researchers call the "closeness communication bias." The study found that when we talk to our significant other we're just as ineffective at conveying our intention as we are when speaking to strangers, but we have a much higher expectation that our partner will understand. That's because we figure the person we live with knows us well enough to get our point without having all of the actual, necessary information. You wouldn't presume that a random person on the street could answer if you ask, "Is there a whatchamacallit bank around here?" but you would expect that your partner could. Clearly, this phenomenon makes for some major conversational misfires in a marriage. Compounding the closeness communication bias is the fact that we subconsciously put our own spin on everything that comes out of our partner's mouth. It happens in my house all the time: I'll be having a perfectly agreeable chat with my husband and all of a sudden we're fighting and I have no idea why. At some point in nearly every one of these spats, we come to a variation of this impasse:
Me: "All I said was [insert impossibly gracious request or statement here]."
Him: "No, you said [insert offensive, accusatory version of above here]!"
What sounds like a bad game of Telephone is in fact the reality of everyday life. Innate gender differences can impede problem solving and contribute to conflict, explains Renay P. Cleary Bradley, Ph.D., who conducted relationship research at the renowned Gottman Institute, in Seattle. "Women are more likely to bring up issues and to make demands, which men tend to perceive as criticism," she explains. (You casually point out the knee-high grass in your backyard; he hears "And what are you going to do about it, you lazy slob?") The remarkably simple secret: It's all in your approach. Research from the Gottman Institute shows that the way you start a conversation will predict the way it will end an incredible 96 percent of the time. The trick, of course, is learning to broach grievances and make requests in a way that is both productive and noncritical. Turns out this technique isn't as hard as it sounds.
What you want: For him to take the initiative and plan a night out
What you say: "Do you want to do something Friday night?"
What he hears: It's up to you whether we go out Friday night or not.
What's happening: Women tend to ask questions instead of making direct statements because they don't want to come off as controlling, explains William Doherty, Ph.D., a professor in the department of family social science at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. The problem is that if your guy hears a question like this, the thought bubble over his head would read, "I know there's a correct answer to this, but I have no idea what it is." Remember, he's not a mind reader. To him, you could simply be taking a poll: Who's excited to go out on Friday? (Him: Not me, thanks!)
What to know for next time: Don't hide a statement or wish inside a pretend question. Try, "I'd like to go out on Friday night. What do you think?" If he's interested, ask "Do you think you could plan something?" Sure, he's still free to say no, but at least he has all of the information now.
What you want: His attention
What you say: "You never listen to me."
What he hears: You never listen to me.
What's happening: Absolutes -- always, never, every, all -- don't work because they give the other person the opportunity to point out any exceptions. ("Not true. I listened to you just last week!") Plus, women are often guilty of sharing a few too many excruciating details, adds Dr. Doherty. "My wife might try to tell me a story about the mother-in-law of the sister of a woman she knows from the gym," he says. "When there's too much information there to even make the connections, a guy can lose interest."
What to know for next time: "It's important to be able to say to him, 'I really need you to listen,'?" says Dr. Bradley, who adds that both parties also need to be mindful of their timing of such requests. "You may have a situation, for instance, where you want to go over your car-insurance policy and he wants to watch a game," she says. If you try to force him to have the unwanted discussion, you'll both wind up frustrated. The better approach: "At some point this weekend we need to go over our car insurance. When's a good time for you to do that?" If you suspect he's tuning out mid-conversation, Dr. Doherty suggests a gracious check-in such as "Have I lost you?" This serves as a gentle, non-accusatory reminder that you'd like him to pay attention.
What you want: To cuddle with no strings attached
What you say: "Want to come to bed with me and cuddle?"
What he hears: Get naked. We're doin' it!
What's happening: If you're in one of those relationships where the guy makes the first move 98 percent of the time, your partner may be wishfully thinking that this is your way of initiating sex, explains Dr. Doherty. "There are probably times in the past when cuddling did lead to more," he adds.
What to know for next time: Try to acknowledge what's going on in his mind while still stating your needs clearly and firmly, urges Dr. Bradley: "I'm not rejecting you, but tonight I really do just want to cuddle." He may be disappointed, but he's likely to respect your needs when you take the direct approach.
More Relationship Communication Challenges
What you want: To vent
What you say: "Listen to what happened to me today."
What he hears: How would you fix this?
What's happening: "Men are problem solvers," says Dr. Doherty. "When they offer unsolicited advice it's their way of trying to be helpful. What they don't understand is that a woman feels 'helped' when she is sympathized with and listened to."
What to know for next time: Tell him precisely what you want to get from the conversation. "I want to tell you about something that happened today," you can begin. "I just need to vent about the situation; you don't have to try to fix it. Can you hear me out?"
What you want: More help around the house
What you say: "This place is a mess."
What he hears: This place is a mess.
What's happening: In his mind you are making an observation, which he is free to agree with, disagree with, or ignore. He may be thinking anything from "It sure is" to "You think this is messy? You should've seen my college dorm room!" We often wish our partner would see that we're upset, and we believe that because they love us they should figure out how to make us feel better, says Dr. Doherty. "But most men just don't think about logistical things in emotional terms." In other words, this statement is never going to inspire him to leap to his feet and start Swiffering.
What to know for next time: State your wants and needs directly so there's no room for misinterpretation. Try this: "I get really stressed when I come home and see the house like this. Let's sit down together and come up with a system that stops it from getting so out of hand." Keeping your words and tone neutral is the key to avoiding a defensive comeback. And consider this: If you can explain why you need something -- for instance, you grew up in a cluttered, chaotic home and always felt anxious there -- it helps to deepen the understanding on your partner's part, Dr. Bradley explains, and may make him more receptive to the request. Sucks to be her! "I hate making the kids' sandwiches every night."
Happy Couple Tip: Pay It Forward
What's the difference between couples who stay together and those who don't make it? Relationship experts at the acclaimed Gottman Institute, in Seattle, found the answer through four decades of observing couples. "We call the happiest ones Masters. They're in a stable, satisfying relationship with consistently positive behaviors and interactions," explains Dr. Renay Bradley. One thing Masters have gotten down pat is something Gottman researchers call the "emotional bank account," which is an accumulation of those little things you do in a given day to make each other feel special and loved. "These aren't diamond rings or vacations to Hawaii," Dr. Bradley says. "These are things like saying 'thank you' to each other, and telling your partner you appreciate him or that you're lucky to be with her. Research has shown that when we take the opportunity in our everyday interactions to create an overall culture of appreciation, the inevitable spats or harsh words between partners aren't so harmful." We'd call that advice you can take to the bank.
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Parents magazine.