Expert Q&A: Talking in relationships is key to communication

It’s no secret that clear communication is the key to a successful relationship. Just how important is talking it out? Longhorn Life sat down with James Pennebaker, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of psychology to answer this question. The author or editor of nine books and more than 250 articles, including his latest book “The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us,” shared his insight into the workings of language in a relationship.

Longhorn Life: Your studies and your book, “The Secret Life Of Pronouns,” are based around writing, language and psychology. How did you become interested in such a simple, everyday action?
Pennebaker: It was actually a series of seemingly unrelated events that led me down this path. I was originally interested in mind-body issues which led me to study eating behavior. This led to the development of a large questionnaire for people suffering from bulimia. On the questionnaire, we asked people if they had ever had a traumatic sexual experience; there was no reason to ask the question other than it sounded interesting. My students and I learned that people who had a major sexual trauma had far more health problems than anyone else. Later studies revealed that the issue wasn’t a sexual trauma per se but rather a trauma that they kept secret. And THAT led me to ask: What if we had people write about major secrets that they kept? And this led to the writing research, which eventually got me to start studying language.

LL: With Valentine’s Day coming up, it’s worthy to note that communication is very important in a relationship. Are there any general psychological meanings behind why someone might give a store-bought card over a hand-written letter?
Pennebaker: I actually have never studied this. My intuitive sense is that a store-bought card is often helpful for people who have trouble saying something directly. Perhaps they don’t have the words for what they are feeling; there are some who find it safer to use the store-bought card. If the recipient doesn’t like the message, the buyer can blame it on Hallmark rather than themselves.

LL: How do you think the evolution of technology has effected the way today’s college students converse with one another romantically?
Pennebaker: Let’s be honest — college students have always had tension with talking about romance. Look at Cyrano or Romeo and Juliet; things might have turned out better if they had IMs or Twitter.

LL: How do the ways today’s couples communicate compare to those of couples in earlier generations?
Pennebaker: I’ve always been suspicious of people who complain that today’s youth are going to hell because they don’t know how to communicate the way the last generation did. I suspect that today’s couples probably communicate as well or better than earlier generations.

LL: Does this relate to divorce rates?
Pennebaker: Divorce rates are lower now than they were a generation ago, and two generations ago people didn’t divorce but the quality of their marriages were often horrible.

LL: Do you have any tips for couples who have trouble talking about meaningful subjects or avoid them at all costs?
Pennebaker: Couples out there, I have some serious advice for you: be honest with one another. If something is bothering you, talk openly and honestly about it. Sometimes your partner may have things to say that you don’t want to hear, but listen to them respectfully and speak honestly and respectfully to them. At times, talking might be too difficult. Try writing your thoughts to the other person. IM, email, or another system might work best for you. Experiment. Whatever you do, however, keep an open line of communication going.