We've all heard the catchphrase that it's not what you say but how you say it. And now science is here to back it up. The happiest and healthiest couples, according to recent research, are those who use positive, affirming tones on the regular — even when they're offering up criticism.
Toni Coleman, psychotherapist and relationship coach, and Lesli Doares, marriage coach and author of Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage, both agree that the majority of what couples communicate to one another doesn't come from words at all. "Most of what we communicate is conveyed through nonverbal messages. These include tone, pitch, and tempo of voice," explains Coleman, which means, "if our tone is warm and positive, our pitch is not shrill or harsh, our words come out fluently, and aren't punctuated by long pauses or hesitations, then we will be sending a less threatening or negative message despite the words themselves."
When we fail to put a positive spin on our words, Doares warns, "it can be hard to feel happy, because the focus is on what is wrong instead of what is working. On the other hand, if you put a smile in your voice, it softens the words and makes them easier to hear whether they are positive or negative."
Our tone is always important, our experts say, because with repeated positive speech, we enable our partners to feel more comfortable and engaged and avoid them shutting down or shutting us out. "Positive speech supports more intimacy as it helps us to be open, vulnerable, and candid when it is needed — even during times of high stress and disagreement," explains Coleman.
But while we should always watch our tone, it's especially important to keep things light "during the rough patches and challenges that all couples eventually face," Coleman says. "These are the times we are most vulnerable due to exhaustion, depleted resources, lack of time and patience, and more," she says, "and we are therefore more susceptible to employing destructive coping mechanisms and behavior that leads to increased alienation and marital unhappiness."
Tones to avoid whenever possible include raising our voices in anger, employing sarcasm to prove an otherwise reasonable point, and speaking in a condescending voice. "Using these tones over and over again leads to feelings of disrespect, lack of importance, and never being good enough in our partners," Doares warns. "Constant negative interactions lead to resentment and hopelessness — a 'why bother' attitude from our partners."
On the flip side, the perfect tone to whip out whenever we speak to our significant others should sound "well-modulated, clear, gentle, but not too soft," describes Coleman. "What we want to convey is that we are speaking to an equal, someone who will get what we are saying, can handle it, and will respond appropriately." Doares adds that our tone should also be one that "shows we are in control of ourselves and curious about their thoughts and feelings," as well as a tone that "conveys gentleness, love, and interest." Use it often enough, she says, and we'll have the "key for long-term happiness and success in our marriages."