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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

When Closeness Does–And Doesn’t–Help a Couple’s Communication

Have you heard about “the closeness communication bias”? It is a term some experts in human communication are using to explain why people who are very close sometimes do not communicate as well as even they think they should.

It commonly is assumed that the very closeness of a husband and wife (or of true friends) enables them to communicate better with each other than, say, with strangers, and often it does. But sometimes it doesn’t, and the reason for that is what the “closeness communication bias” is all about.

Closeness “can lead people to overestimate how well they communicate, a phenomenon we term the closeness-communication bias,” according to Boaz Keysar, a University of Chicago psychology professor. He is one of the co-authors of a paper on this “bias” published in January by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

“It is important for couples to realize that when they think they understand each other, they might be wrong” — not because they are married, but “because they are so close,” Keysar told me. He said:

“We tend to have the illusion that knowing someone well would make our communication so much more effective. In many cases we might be right, but what we don’t realize is that closeness also gives us an illusion of insight into the other’s mind.”

A risk in this is that, though triggered by no “ill intention,” a “benign” misunderstanding can “easily escalate” into a more serious conflict, Keysar said. One experiment discussed in the paper he co-authored showed that relatively simple, though ambiguous, statements made by one spouse to the other often are misunderstood.

As an example of an ambiguous statement, the paper mentions one spouse saying to the other, “It’s getting hot in here.” The speaker may mean it is time to turn up the air conditioning, but the hearer may attribute a sexual connotation to the statement. In its concluding sentence, the paper says, “When your spouse turns to you and says, ‘It’s getting hot in here,’ it is wise to remember that you may not know exactly what he or she means.”

The paper’s lead author is Kenneth Savitsky, a psychology professor at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. “Some couples may indeed be on the same wavelength, but maybe not as much as they think,” he commented. They “get rushed and preoccupied,” and they “stop taking the perspective of the other person, precisely because the two … are so close,” he said.

It seems that a communication “bias” on the part of a wife and husband or close friends leads them to take too much for granted. Because of all their shared perspectives and experiences, the temptation is to assume they are being heard and understood by each other even when that is not the case. It is an assumption they would not make when communicating with strangers and many others.

Because we know that strangers do not share our perspectives, we know we must present information to them in a way that works. We offer the explanations necessary for them to understand the information we are sharing or the directions we are providing, for example. The problem in a close relationship is that when something needs to be explained, it might not be (for example, when sharing new information).

Thus, I as a husband might sometimes take for granted that, due to all our shared perspectives, my wife will understand what I am saying to her, even though I haven’t explained things very well. The just-published paper describes how people “let down their guard” when it comes to communicating with those closest to them.

Actually, people who are close often are aided by their similar perspectives, the paper notes. Often they may well communicate “more accurately” with each other than with strangers. The paper does not hold that closeness “necessarily impedes communication.”

In fact, the paper suggests that closeness can enhance communication in a number of ways. Nonetheless, people in close relationships are at risk of overestimating “the extent” to which their perspectives are shared.

The paper points out that a difficulty can arise when people who are close “venture into a relatively unfamiliar domain” in their conversation “and assume that a common frame of reference in one domain will translate into successful communication in another.” It says:

“Successful communication requires communicators to recognize that others’ perspectives may differ from their own and that others may not always know what they mean.”

According to Nicholas Epley, another of the paper’s co-authors, the “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.” Epley is a University of Chicago professor of behavioral science.

Savitsky believes that to communicate effectively, it is essential to have an understanding that “what I know is different from what you know.” This understanding is “necessary for giving directions, for teaching a class or just for having an ordinary conversation.”

However, says Savitsky, “that insight can be elusive when the ‘you’ in question is a close friend or spouse.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.