Is talk cheap?: Relational maintenance and scarcity, part II

In Part I, I discussed some of my recent research on romantic couples. My results suggested some things we do to maintain our relationships are scarce, and others are not. If a behavior is scarce, then if I give it to you, I can’t give it to someone else. That post mainly addressed shared media (e.g., TV/movies) as one such scarce behavior (as well as time and resources).

But, I hope we’d agree that only watching TV doesn’t make a relationship strong. After all, by way of analogy, we need to do many different things to keep a car on the road. Changing the oil is important maintenance work, but it isn’t going to fix your brakes! Likewise, relationships need a variety of behaviors to stay healthy—and human relationships are much more complex than cars!

Among the ways we maintain our relationships, the kind of talk we use is of utmost importance. Consider the Hebrew proverb: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” (Proverbs 18:21, ESV). Between couples, talk can craft a relationship of shining beauty or soul-crushing brokenness. The words we use in our close relationships matter.

But, what kind of talk are we talking about (ha!)? Not all talk is equivalent; chatting about the weather is not the same as discussing politics, and neither are the same as telling someone “I love you” (at least, I hope not!)

This study identified five types of talk romantic couples use to maintain their relationships. To make them concrete, I’ve included one survey item that measured the type of talk:

  1. Verbal affection (“We say ‘I love you’ to each other.”)
  2. Deep talk (“We disclose deeply personal, private information about ourselves to each other.”)
  3. Conflict management (“We handle disagreements with each other.”)
  4. Informal talk (“We talk about what’s up and about what happened during the day.”)
  5. Humor (“We tell jokes and humorous stories to each other.”)

Of course, the next logical question is: Which of these types of talk is most important to the health of a relationship? The answer is: all of the above! Close couples were more likely to use all types of talk in their relationships!

A few “take-away” points:

  1. It isn’t just the deep conversations. We typically think of our closest relationships as those where we can share our deepest thoughts and feelings. But, that’s not always a sign of a super-close relationship. Some people disclose very private thoughts to counselors or clergy, but don’t share the mundane details of their lives with them. In some ways, sharing our daily events over a period of time is much more intimate than one episode of deep sharing.
  2. Conflict can be healthy. This study wasn’t mainly about conflict, and certainly conflict can be destructive. When approached with the desire to sacrificially love the other person, and the heart to work toward the best solution possible, conflict also can improve our relationships and make them resilient. In this study, the closest couples didn’t always run from conflict.
  3. Variety is key. These talk types are remarkably diverse! If your conversation is always light and fluffy, or always super-duper-deep, that could be a problem. Just as the body needs a variety of foods to stay healthy, so romantic relationships need a variety of talk.

Finally, one type of talk emerged as uniquely important. All the talk types reflected a close relationship, but one especially did, and that’s verbal affection. In other words, the closest couples say “I love you” to each other frequently! It strikes me that some couples probably don’t say those words enough, and for others they say it without much meaning. My gut feeling is that it’s best not only to verbalize affection, but also to mean it when we say it.

So is talk cheap? Maybe—but it certainly isn’t scarce. And it’s important. What kind of talk would your romantic partner most like to hear today?

Whether it’s revealing the secrets of your heart, facing a long-standing conflict, or simply chatting about your day, that talk could improve the health of your relationship.


My social networking site course featured in TCU Magazine!

The newest issue of TCU Magazine features a story on my social networking site seminar – one of my favorite classes to teach! The course takes students through the history of communication technology, then applying this history to understand our social media / smartphone world.

You can read the TCU Magazine article, or visit my teaching page to find the syllabi for both undergraduate and master’s-level seminars.

Does Watching TV Together Help Maintain a Healthy Relationship?: Relational Maintenance and Scarcity, Part I

As my wife and close friends can attest, I’m just not much of a movie guy. I fully respect those who are, but for some reason movies have never really been my cup o’ root beer. But I know many couples who spend a lot of time watching movies together. For my wife and me, it’s not so much movies, but TV – after working and taking care of young kids during the day, watching an episode of The Office or Friday Night Lights can be awfully relaxing.

But could it be that watching TV/movies together isn’t just recreational, but also a sign of a healthy relationship? One of my recent studies suggests the answer may be “yes.”

I surveyed 123 romantic couples about things they do to maintain their relationships with each other. The couples were diverse – most were married, but some were dating; some were in their 20s, and others in their 60s and 70s, etc.

The first paper from this data set has been accepted as the top paper in the interpersonal communication division of the Central States Communication Association. You can read and comment on that paper here.

In this study, I wanted to examine the idea, advanced by psychologist Arthur Aron and his colleagues, that the things we do to maintain our relationships arise from something called “including the other person in your sense of the self.” The basic idea is that when you become really close with someone, you don’t think of them as a separate person, but rather as part of who you are. If they’re happy, you’re happy. If they’re hurting, you’re hurting. If they need money, you give it to them. We don’t think of our resources as “mine” and “yours,” but rather “ours.” I don’t know if Aron had the biblical “… and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24) in mind, but that description of utter husband/wife unity seems very similar.

My study identified eleven different behaviors people do to maintain their romantic relationships. What seemed to distinguish these behaviors is whether or not they are scarce. Giving money is a great example of scarcity. If I give you a dollar, I can’t give that dollar to another person. But if I give you some deep conversation, I can still give deep conversation to someone else. Both giving money or deep conversation could maintain a relationship, but one behavior is scarce and the other is not. In this post, I want to talk for a moment about scarce maintenance behaviors. I’ll discuss the non-scarce behaviors in my next post!

What are these “scarce” maintenance behaviors, then? This study identified three.

One is resources—basically, money and possessions. Another is time. Couples who didn’t include each other in the sense of the self—basically, who weren’t “into” each other—didn’t share much resources or time. Couples only shared a lot of time and resources with each other when both people were “into” each other. Only one person being “into” the other didn’t cut it.

The third scarce behavior was shared media, or watching TV/movies together. I had to scratch my head on that one—is sharing media really a scarce behavior? After thinking about it (and after seeing my daughter’s ire when I change channels from Dora to CNN), I realized: “Yeah, it sure is!” Think of the cliché argument over the TV remote (or these days, the DVR). An hour together watching “his” show can’t also go to “her” show. The couple could watch separate shows on separate TVs in separate rooms, but this study focused on shared viewing, not that kind of individual activity.

And like time and possessions, the pattern held: The highest amount of shared media use only occurred when both people were really “into” each other! This seems a bit counterintuitive—vegging in front of the ‘tube’ doesn’t sound like a particularly romantic activity. But, this study suggests watching TV together has something to do with being a close couple.

Now, this finding could be just a side effect of time: Closer couples spend more time together, so they also spend more time watching TV together. Also, it could reflect similarity: Couples watch TV together because they like the same shows.

But nevertheless, I’m intrigued by another explanation: that sharing media might actually help a couple stay close. Perhaps watching TV together provides shared experiences, and maybe it doesn’t just reflect similarity, but also helps build it. Shared media can generate discussion about characters, plot, and actors, and who hasn’t enjoyed in-jokes with fellow fans of favorite shows and movies?

So, I leave the question to you: Do you think the media you share with your romantic partner strengthens your relationship in any way? If so, why; if not, why not?

Why “Maintaining Healthy Relationships”?

Close relationships matter.

While creating this blog, an article in The Wall Street Journal caught my eye: “Is Your Personality Making You Put on Pounds?” I like working out (and, um, eating), and I like thinking about personality, so I took a look. Most interestingly to me, the article noted that the quality of our relationships has something to do with our physical health. Specifically, reporting on a study published in the academic journal Pediatrics, the WSJ noted, “Toddlers who had low-quality emotional relationships with their mothers are more than twice as likely to be obese at age 15 as those who have closer bonds.”

And that’s just one study. A host of research strongly indicates that the quality of our close relationships influences our physical health, as well as our mental health, our emotional state, and work productivity.

The title of this blog is “Maintaining Healthy Relationships.” But, a few words about that. By “relationships,” I don’t necessarily mean “romantic relationships.” Those are important, but so are our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. I mean “healthy” in two senses. First, relationships are a bit like our bodies. Some possess more health than others, and without maintenance, even a very healthy relationship may turn sick (or die). But secondly, when we maintain healthy relationships, they bring vitality to other areas of our lives. In both of these senses, the chief purpose of this blog is to explore how we can maintain healthy relationships.

So, what exactly will you find here?

Well, I am a researcher, so you’ll hear about what I’m studying—in fact, unless you see me face-to-face, this blog will be the best and first place to find out about my scholarship. Maintaining relationships through technology is one of my most common research topics.

I’m also a person who cares deeply about his relationships, so you’ll hear my personal opinion as well. My faith, which I believe is a relationship with Jesus Christ, is very important to me, and I plan that some (but not all) posts will investigate what the Bible says about close relationships. You may also see occasional posts on non-relationship topics, such as the nature of academic life.

But whatever the topic, I invite you to discuss and explore with me. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I hope that, together, we can discover how best to maintain healthy relationships!