Jamie Ratowski, LMFT
The Impact Non-Verbal Communication Has On Your Relationship
Couples therapy is one of my favorite parts of my job, particularly because every relationship is unique. No couple is the same. It’s thrilling! However, even though every relationship may be distinct, I also see a lot of patterns. Healthy and unhealthy ones. And there is one that particularly stands out.
Non-verbal communication is just as important, if not more important than verbal communication. Common examples of this type of communication are body language, tone of voice, and eye-contact. This type of communication has a MAJOR impact on the overall mood and quality of the relationship.
Let me put this into perspective. Let’s say you are having dinner with your boyfriend and he is visibly ignoring you, staring at his phone. Or your wife rolls her eyes every time you say “I love you”. That wouldn't feel good and I bet that eye roll seems like it is portraying A LOT more than just an eye-roll. That's the thing about non-verbal communication, just because you aren't actually saying something with your words, it doesn't mean you're not still sending a message.
My goal is to help couples grow healthier and stronger and to eliminate bad patterns. Psycho-education is a big part of my therapeutic approach, I believe knowledge is power. Increasing one’s understanding of these unhealthy non-verbal communication patterns and identifying what they may look like can help in minimizing their use and ultimately decrease conflict. This is the goal, so I want to reflect deeper on the three most common non-verbal communication patterns I see so often in my work:
1. Tone of Voice: Have you or your partner ever heard “it’s not WHAT you said, it’s HOW you said it!” If so, you’re not alone. Your tone includes more than just the volume of your voice, it also includes your pitch, your pronunciation, and the exclamation. Your tone of voice can make a small request into an accentuated complaint, something simple to sound like an annoyance. Our tone of voice conveys a lot. Our words say what we want, but our tone conveys the MEANING. A good tip I often give is to THINK about what you want to say first before speaking. We can often catch ourselves from using an unhealthy tone if we just take a minute to stop and think about what we want to say, and how we can best convey the meaning behind it. A lot of work is put in on making the communication better in your relationship, but don’t neglect work on your tone of voice.
2. Body Language - I see something in therapy on a weekly basis, and I’ve started to point it out every time because the response is almost always the same. “I didn’t even know I was doing that.” It’s a simple shake of the head when their partner is talking. What does a head shake say to you? It says “no” right? Or “you're wrong”? Your body can be saying something totally different than your mouth. A head shake, a shoulder shrug, a large distance between you on the couch, pulling your hand away when you are being reached for. It all says something, and that something is not positive.
Dr. John and Julie Gottman have researched the importance of turning towards your partner’s bids for connection and found a huge connection between healthy, long-lasting couples and those who turn towards their partners vs. away. This can start with body language. Face your body towards your partner, sit closer, reach out your hand. These small gestures have a huge impact. They show the desire to connect and grow closer rather than push your partner away. Remember, our bodies tell a story. What are you telling your partner with yours?
3. Eye Contact: This one seems simple right? All you have to do is just look at your partner when they are talking to you. This is easier said than done, actually. It’s easy to get distracted in the hustle and bustle of life and as I like to call it, be stuck in auto-pilot. When we aren’t being present we aren’t being attentive to our partner either. Your intention may be to talk and connect with your partner but your head is still at the office or stewing over your report due next week. That’s life, we are busy.
Talk to each other about your days and what’s on your mind, but make sure you are focused on connecting through eye contact while you do it. The words mean less here than eye contact because the eyes will convey a deeper message that says “I am here, I am present”.
Neglecting connection through eye contact opens the door to negative feelings sneaking in. Insecurity, neglect, resentment can all arise if we feel our partners are avoiding us, distracted, or simply checked out. Eye contact is easier to correct than overcoming resentment, so start now! Look at each other, connect through eye contact. It’s more powerful than you may realize. Eyes on the prize, people!
Do you recognize any of these patterns in your relationship? If so, it’s not the end of the world. Patterns are learned behavior, but you can also unlearn behavior. You can begin to identify, re-direct, and essentially eliminate unhealthy patterns, even the non-verbal ones.
If you and/or your partner are looking to work on your conflict resolution and communication skills, call me today to schedule a couples therapy session at 954-391-5305. To read more about my approach to therapy and find out what other services I offer, visit my page.