Relationships are all about communication: something you have probably heard before. But did you know that social science research backs up this claim, and can also provide you with the practical tools you need to minimize conflict and maximize harmony in your relationship? For example, research shows which barriers to communication might arise, why, and how you can overcome them. Research also shows that your self-concept and self-image have a strong bearing on how you comport yourself in your intimate relationships. Using appropriate levels of self-disclosure and emotional intelligence, you can improve your self-esteem and improve your relationship with each other and with people outside of your dyad. In this letter, I would like to outline for you some of the highlights of what I have learned in a course on communication. Far from being based on pop psychology or pseudoscience, what I am about to tell you is based on the latest research in psychology and sociology. Ultimately, barriers to communication arise out of deeply rooted issues like insecurity, low self-esteem, and cognitive biases, as well as poorly developed communication strategies. Effective communication in a marriage therefore hinges on each of you being willing to boost emotional intelligence through self-mastery, encouraging self-awareness as well as empathy.
Barriers to Communication
Innumerable situational and psychological barriers to communication might arise during the course of your relationship. Conflict management is one of the most important strategies for maintaining a healthy marriage over time (Bevan & Sole, 2014, Chapter 8). Learning how to manage conflicts requires a certain degree of education, skill, and practice. You need to ideally develop self-awareness and emotional intelligence to manage conflict effectively, and we will discuss emotional intelligence in more detail later. For now, we will focus on some of the common barriers to communication you might encounter in your relationship. Some of the barriers you might encounter include faulty cognitive schemas such as self-fulfilling prophesies, stereotyping, and the halo effect. Self-fulfilling prophesies refer to your hearing what you expect or want to hear instead of tuning into your partner fully (Bevan & Sole, Chapter 2). Mindfulness is the best means of overcoming this and other type of cognitive biases. With mindfulness, you train yourself to actively listen to your partner and stop attributing their behaviors to outmoded concepts that you have of them—just as you would want them to do for you. Similarly, even the most positive seeming stereotypes can create cognitive biases that become barriers to communication. The halo effect may occur during your honeymoon stage, when you only see the other person’s positive characteristics. When that person reveals one of their faults or quirks, your image of them is suddenly changed. Instead of prejudging your significant other, try to be more mindful and understanding of their humanity.
Communication apprehension is usually associated more with stage fright or the anxiety you feel before a job interview, but apprehension can also arise when you want to have a challenging conversation with your significant other. For example, if you need to admit to your partner that you have been gambling and spent some of the family savings, you might feel apprehensive about that conversation. Each person handles communication apprehension differently. Those who tend to be highly apprehensive will tend most to avoid the situation, which causes even more problems later on (Bevan & Sole, 2014, Chapter 5, p. 3). If you experience communication apprehension in your marriage, the official term for it is “dyadic,” because it pertains to your dyad, just the two of you (Bevan & Sole, 2014, Chapter 5, p. 4). People who tend to be shy and introverted might experience higher levels of communication apprehension than those who are extraverted (Bevan & Sole, 2014, Chapter 5).
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Therefore, it helps to be aware of your personality style and your tendencies and to work hard to strengthen your weaknesses.
Some of the most destructive barriers to communication in an interpersonal relationship include avoidance, spying, jealousy induction, infidelity, allowing control, and destructive conflict (Bevan & Sole, 2014, Chapter 8, p. 4). We spoke a little about avoidance earlier when we discussed communication apprehension. It is important to have the courage to address difficult topics, rather than letting your feelings fester. This requires a lot of effort on your part personally, as no one but you can muster the willingness to overcome that apprehension and trust your partner will not judge you for what you are about to say. Of course, you are also entrusted with the responsibility of having empathy and being willing to forgive the other person when they expose themselves to you.
Self-Concept, Self-Image, Self-Esteem
Communication is about far more than just sending and receiving messages. The way we communicate is also a product of our self-concept and self-image. In fact, we form our self-concept and self-image based on the feedback we have received throughout our entire lives. The things people say to us, and how they react to us, serve as social mirrors: what some researchers have referred to as the “looking glass self,” (Bevan & Sole, 2014, Chapter 2, p. 3). If your partner reinforces your sense of self, you will feel little conflict. However, if one day your partner reacts to you in an unexpected way that did not coincide with your self-image, you might experience anxiety, which could lead to a small crisis in communication. If either of you have a negative self-concept or self-image, then you could also experience a low sense of self-esteem, which could end up being a barrier to your communication (Bevan & Sole, 2014, Chapter 2, p. 6). Try to remember that you alone are responsible for your self-esteem. Your partner can compliment you and support you, but “you have to work to develop your self-esteem,” (Bevan & Sole, 2014, Chapter 2, p. 6). The better you feel about yourself, and the more honest your self-concept is, the better your interactions will be not just with your significant other, but with everyone else in your life.
To manage our self-image, we might express ourselves certain ways such as through our dress or mannerisms. Once you get to know the other person you might realize that there was a lot more to your partner than you realized after the first date because you have engaged in what is known as impression formation. Impression formation is the process of forming first impressions based on what you saw or perceived on that first date, while the act of impression management is what your partner did to prepare for that first date—such as buying a new outfit or getting a haircut (Bevan & Sole, 2014, Chapter 7). Although issues like self-image and self-concept are especially important at these early stages of the relationship, they remain perennially important throughout your lifetime and will continue to impact the quality of your interpersonal communications.
Levels of Self-Disclosure
The efficacy of your relationship depends on intimacy, which is in turn dependent on your willingness to self-disclose (Horne & Johnson, 2018, p. 37). While Horne & Johnson (2018) show that females have been socialized to self-disclosed more readily than males,….....