Let’s imagine a couple, Tom and Sara, who have always made an effort to practice good communication skills. In their daily interactions, they regularly give each other small compliments, and always ask about things going on in each other’s lives. And when they argue, they try to remain calm, never hurling accusations or saying anything they’ll later regret.
These are great habits that can go a long way toward keeping a relationship strong. What many couples don’t realize, however, is that the best verbal communication skills can be undermined by a bad habit they may not even be aware of: poor nonverbal communication.
Let’s say Tom is in charge of bringing the garbage cans in from the curb on trash-collection days, but he regularly forgets. One night Sara has to work late, drives home tired and grumpy, and when she arrives the first thing she sees is that pair of garbage cans still at the curb. Angrily, she hauls them back to the house herself and approaches Tom. She explains how frustrated she feels that he never seems to remember that one pesky chore. He shrugs and apologizes, adding that he was really tired when he got home, and it must have slipped his mind. Even angrier now—after all, she’s the one who had to work late—Sara rolls her eyes, sighs heavily and then struggles for the right words. “Thank you for apologizing,” she says in a voice that betrays a hint of sarcasm. “I know you don’t mean to do it. But please remember in the future.”
Do you see what happened? When Sara complained about the garbage cans, he literally shrugged it off even as he apologized. She then essentially rejected his apology with a condescending roll of her eyes. As a result, the rest of the evening is tense; the issue hasn’t really been put to bed at all.
The point is that no matter how carefully you choose your words, body language matters too—a lot.
Things like glaring, shaking your head while the other person talks, or crossing your arms tightly across your chest can express that you’re more focused on your own feelings than hearing the other person out.
On the positive side, however, things like literally putting down what you’re doing when your partner is trying to talk, making eye contact, and touching your partner gently on the shoulder can go along way toward easing conflicts. The same is true even when things are going well—stopping and looking at your partner to wish them a good day when you leave in the morning sometimes goes farther than a hasty “I love you!” shouted as an afterthought when you’re halfway out the door.
There are countless more examples of effective vs. ineffective nonverbal communication, but the first step is just to be aware of it. When you’re talking with your partner, take care that the signals you’re sending are what you really hope to convey.
One trap you want to avoid is developing a pattern of giving off dismissive, angry or condescending nonverbal cues while trying to mask the building tension with polite language. In the example above, Sara’s eye-rolling may indicate that deep down she believes Tom is selfish and unwilling to do his share around the house. Tom, meanwhile, may secretly think Sara is always trying to boss him around, and his shrug is a way of showing that he resents her perceived nagging.
This can definitely be an indication that a relationship is headed for trouble. The absence of verbal arguments might tell one story, but your nonverbal cues are telling another.
Again, just being aware of your body language can go a long way towards improving communications, defusing potential fights and enhancing words of affection. If you think the problem runs deeper than that, however, and you find that words are failing you in your quest for a healthy relationship, please give OC Relationship Center a call at 949-220-3211 or book your appointment via our online calendar. Our licensed counselors are here for you.