Close Relationships Sometimes Mask Poor Communication

People may think loved ones understand them better than they actually do, research shows

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MONDAY, Jan. 24 (HealthDay News) -- For many people, their communication skills with loved ones are not as strong as they think.

In fact, spouses sometimes communicate with each other no better than strangers do, a new study suggests.

"People commonly believe that they communicate better with close friends than with strangers. That closeness can lead people to overestimate how well they communicate, a phenomenon we term the 'closeness-communication bias,'" study co-author Boaz Keysar, a professor in psychology at the University of Chicago, said in a university news release.

In the study, researchers asked 24 married couples to take part in an experiment in which two sets of couples sat in chairs -- with their backs to each other -- and tried to figure out the meaning of phrases whose meaning isn't entirely clear.

The spouses thought they communicated better than they actually did, the study authors noted.

"A wife who says to her husband, 'it's getting hot in here,' as a hint for her husband to turn up the air conditioning a notch, may be surprised when he interprets her statement as a coy, amorous advance instead," said study author Kenneth Savitsky, professor of psychology at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., in the news release. "Although speakers expected their spouse to understand them better than strangers, accuracy rates for spouses and strangers were statistically identical. This result is striking because speakers were more confident that they were understood by their spouse."

According to Savitsky, "Some couples may indeed be on the same wavelength, but maybe not as much as they think. You get rushed and preoccupied, and you stop taking the perspective of the other person, precisely because the two of you are so close."

Study co-author Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, explained the differences this way: "Our problem in communicating with friends and spouses is that we have an illusion of insight. Getting close to someone appears to create the illusion of understanding more than actual understanding."

More information

The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more on family issues.

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