How Voice Tone Affects Your Relationships: “It’s not WHAT you say…”

Many people are familiar with the statement, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” In fact, this has been confirmed by some well-known research conducted by Dr. Albert Mehrabian. His studies concluded that communication is 7% verbal and 93% non-verbal.  

He then broke down the non-verbal components as follows: 55% is from facial expressions, gestures, and postures, while 38% is from tone of voice. Although his research has been criticized (in that it overstates how much of communication is really non-verbal), the point is, a large part of communication — and arguably the most important part — is actually non-verbal, which does include one’s tone of voice.

However, until recently, research hadn’t confirmed the significance of different voice tones and what impact they have on our relationships.

Over a two-year period, using a computer algorithm, researchers from the University of Southern California recorded hundreds of conversations in therapy sessions. They focused particularly on the pitch and intensity of voices, which indicated high emotion. Over 100 couples participated and the findings were reported in the journal, Proceedings of Interspeech.

Amazingly, results showed that tone of voice was a better predictor of marital success than the opinions of counseling professionals! This is even more significant when you consider that these counseling professionals had the distinct advantage of being able to analyze couples’ behavior, body language, and other communication factors.

A five-year follow-up with the study participants confirmed the algorithm findings were able to predict improvement or deterioration in relationships 74% of the time!

The takeaway from this research is that how you say something really, really matters — especially in the sphere of intimate relationships.

While an algorithm analysis won’t likely show up in your therapist’s office anytime soon, what the research revealed is quite important. The tone of voice we use can positively or negatively affect our interactions with others, particularly with those closest to us.

How you speak, and what you and your partner say to each other, greatly impacts your emotions and relationship quality. In support of this statement, another recent study found that couples who show appreciation for each other by saying “please” and “thank you” had the happiest marriages. Even small, infrequent signs of gratitude helped keep partners feeling connected, better prepared to survive rough times, and avoid divorce.

Think about it: A comment directed to you in a sarcastic or critical tone comes across as a negative blow, right? Yet hearing the same words, delivered in a kind and loving tone, has an entirely different and upbeat feel, doesn’t it? The big communication difference lies in the tone of voice we choose when we communicate with others.

If you recognize negative voice tone patterns in your relationships, see if the following exercise is helpful:

Focus on the tone of voice both you and your partner use when interacting. At the same time, pay attention to how particular voice tones affect your mood and emotions. Try studying your responses for a full week or simply start with one weekend.

Regularly observing the way you speak to others, as well as how the words are received, would be a great start or addition to a mindfulness practice. Equally important, observe how the varying tones of voice from others impact you.

Most of us don’t pay enough attention to how our tone of voice (as well as the words we use) affects our interactions with others. If your relationships are suffering due to poor communication and you could benefit from more guidance, do not hesitate to seek professional support from a local therapist.

While what you say, of course, matters, how you say it truly does make a big difference.

Category: Couples · Tags:

Does Being Married Make You Healthier?

Research over the years has indicated that married people enjoy better physical and emotional health than those who are single. In fact, just last March, the American College of Cardiology announced that married adults were less likely than singles to develop coronary artery disease. A lower risk of aortic aneurysms and cerebrovascular disease were a few of the other health benefits cited. Interesting to note though: The health risk difference between married and single folks was only found to be 5%.

Other recent studies, however, have determined that simply being married doesn’t mean a whole lot by itself. And it shouldn’t, right? Would simply having a legal document really mean that you now are in better health? Recent research revealed that the heart-healthy benefits only apply to “good” marriages and being in a “bad” marriage actually cancels out any health-protective features! This finding applies regardless of the length of marriage — whether you’ve been together for four years or for forty years.

Since most people don’t have marriages that are 100% good or 100% bad, what does this really mean for the clear majority of relationships that fall somewhere in the middle?  

Newer research has been conducted to shed some light on the above question regarding those “ambivalent” marriages. Researchers at Brigham Young University, in their analysis, referred to these couples as “frenemies“ who experience both high and low points together.

This BYU study determined that people who considered their relationships as primarily supportive were more likely to have lower blood pressure than individuals who described their marriages as lacking intimacy and who felt invalidated by their partner.

Study participants who felt unappreciated and disconnected from their partners, as well as those who experienced more volatile levels of positive and negative qualities in their relationship, tended to have higher blood pressure. Therefore, a disconnected and primarily unsupportive relationship actually has a negative effect on any heart-protective benefits of marriage.

The study also found no difference in gender, affecting both men and women similarly. Relationship happiness was determined to be the key differentiating factor.

Michigan State University confirmed these findings, according to research published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. While this study focused on older couples, it also concluded that the quality of marriages was directly tied to the quality of couples’ health. The length of a marriage made no difference, although wives were found to face greater health risks than their husbands.

Not surprisingly, those who expressed being happy and satisfied with their relationship had a higher chance of experiencing positive health benefits. And it also appears that a bad marriage is worse for your health than a good marriage helps your health!

Fortunately, it is never too late to improve the state of your marriage and the state of your wellbeing. Even marriages with a history of problems and a lack of support can change and aren’t doomed. Those in long-term relationships can benefit as well as those in newer ones. Everyone can learn to listen, share, and become more supportive of their partners.

If you consider yourself to be in an “ambivalent relationship” with lots of ups and downs, I suggest you try the following:

  1. Commit together to work on and improve your relationship.

  2. Identify the areas that you struggle with the most.

  3. Communicate and address these problems.

  4. Decide on positive steps to take together (to overcome problems).

  5. Seek the guidance of a skilled couples counselor if you reach a stalemate, or have complex personal issues that could benefit from professional intervention.

Remember that very few marriages are all good or all bad, and most marriages can be improved. With research consistently pointing out that the quality of our relationships has a huge impact on our health and happiness, regardless of our ages, don’t let another day go by. Take positive steps to strengthen your marriage now, and reap the benefits for years to come.

Category: Couples · Tags:

How a Performance Review Could Save Your Relationship



Job-related performance reviews may make you anxious enough. So how would you feel if your intimate partner asked for one?

After considering the potential benefits, you might realize it’s actually not a bad idea. Research conducted by Dr. James Cordova, director of the Center for Couples and Family Research at Clark University in Massachusetts, found that regular relationship checkups did indeed have a positive impact.

Cordova’s study, published in the “Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology,” asked coupled partners to fill out a questionnaire detailing the strengths and weaknesses of their relationship. Half the participating couples met with a therapist to evaluate the results and come up with a plan for addressing their concerns. The control group of couples were told they were on a waiting list, and ultimately never reviewed or discussed the questionnaire findings.

Two years later, those participants who saw a therapist and worked on ways to improve their weaknesses, described themselves as being happier in their relationships. They felt closer to each other and experienced less depressive symptoms than the couples who never addressed the questionnaire results with their partners.

As Dr. Cordova points out, it only makes sense to have regular checkups – whether we’re talking about dental exams, annual physicals, or performing regular maintenance on our cars. Periodic evaluations help us make sure everything runs smoothly and stays in proper working order. Checkups alert us to potential problems which, when caught early, are usually minor and much easier to repair.

Of interest, men in particular were often found to prefer performance reviews over more traditional couples counseling. Perhaps this is because the main focus of the former is on strengths, problem-solving, and goals – with less emphasis on blame (real or perceived) or analyzing conflicts and other issues.

Similar to work performance evaluations, partners who felt they were treated fairly were more accepting of the review results. Those who believed the findings were unfair expressed more hostility, and resentment, toward the process.

So how often should couples conduct a performance review?

Relationship coaches, Kathlyn and Gay Hendricks, who have been married for 34 years, recommend making time once or twice a week to meet and discuss concerns. In addition, they schedule a more formal and thorough relationship checkup every four to six months.

While these research results and recommendations are not too surprising, many couples can too easily forget to discuss the current state of their relationship. These important conversations often get pushed aside, as the more pressing activities and busyness of daily life take over.

Regularly scheduling a time and place to focus solely on “how we’re doing” as a couple takes effort on the part of both partners. However, the review’s emphasis on strengths and positives in the relationship, instead of conflicts and negativity, is often found to be a big relief and encourages more consistent “evaluation dates.”

You can even start the process now, by taking the actual performance review questionnaire that Dr. Cordova’s used in his research, here.


Below are some important guidelines for conducting relationship checkups:

  1. Pick a time and place free from distractions and stress for both partners.
  1. Begin by focusing on the positive: What’s working? What are your strengths as a couple?
  1. Be careful not to make the review a character attack! Keep any concerns directed toward particular behaviors instead of attacking your partner’s traits, or characteristics. (E.G. “I feel frustrated when you ….”)
  1. Allow for a respectful dialogue and exchange of opinions when discussing concerns in the performance review. You and your partner should be able to each share your thoughts and feelings in a way that you both can feel heard.
  1. After finishing your evaluation, agree on an action improvement plan for each of you. Schedule a date for a follow-up (and keep it!) to check your progress and reassess or make changes, as necessary.
  1. Seek relationship counseling if you get stuck or too heated in the process.

Remember that regular performance evaluations of any kind can keep minor irritations from becoming a more serious or irresolvable problem. Taking time to address the “little things” in your relationship now, with an open and honest assessment, will keep it healthy, running smoothly, and help prevent problems in the future.

Category: Couples · Tags:

How to Get the Most out of Premarital Counseling

Premarital counseling is on the rise, as more and more engaged couples include it on their checklist of things to do before the “Big Day.”

Unfortunately, many couples still don’t recognize the potential benefits premarital counseling could have on their future. Until recently, it’s not been viewed as important, unless you belonged to a church or synagogue that required some premarital counseling or classes.

Why Doesn’t Everyone Participate?

According to one research survey, engaged couples are often overconfident, and refuse to consider the possibility that their relationship could end in divorce. Partners in the “honeymoon phase,” who dismiss or don’t see each other’s “flaws” as potential problems, feel premarital counseling is unnecessary. They believe their relationship doesn’t, and won’t, need it.

Some couples may not seek premarital counseling because they think it will be too expensive. Unfortunately, they are unable to recognize that the health of their relationship is certainly more than worth the investment. Other couples may reject the notion of counseling because they think it will take up too much of their time, already in short supply, due to other obligations.

Fear of what will be revealed also tends to hold couples back. Yes, talking about some issues can initially be uncomfortable and even embarrassing. But this discomfort is a temporary inconvenience, especially when compared to the lifetime benefits that counseling can provide.

An additional reason couples dismiss the value of premarital counseling has to do with the negative perception or stereotype of seeking therapy in general. Many people hold the erroneous belief that going to couples counseling means the relationship must be in deep trouble. These folks view counseling as something only needed for serious problems, so attending must mean your relationship is doomed.

Benefits of Counseling before Marriage

The purpose of premarital counseling is mainly to educate. Therapists can provide couples with the skills needed to handle difficult issues and deal with potential conflict that inevitably will arise in their relationship at some point. Setting aside some time and money for a few counseling sessions is a very wise investment in your future, and a gift to yourselves.

A meta-analytic review (a review of all research on a topic), published in the journal “Family Relations,” evaluated the effectiveness of premarital counseling programs. The study concluded that 30% of couples who underwent premarital counseling experienced an increase in marital satisfaction down the road. Or stated another way, those who attended counseling sessions before marriage were 79% better off than couples who didn’t participate!

Other research, reported in the “Journal of Family Psychology,” found that couples who participated in premarital education were 30% less likely to experience divorce within five years.

Unfortunately, the above findings were limited to medium and short-term relationship benefit. No long-term follow-up was conducted to determine the success rate of premarital counseling over many years, although there is no clear reason to assume the positive effects of premarital counseling would not last.

In my experience working with couples, the benefits of investing in some premarital therapy sessions are very clear. A successful marriage requires work, dedication, and the commitment of both partners. Premarital guidance, from a skilled professional, can be a tremendous help in learning how to nurture a relationship and keep it healthy over the long term.

Here are some suggestions for maximizing the benefits of premarital counseling:

  1. Come to counseling with an openness for learning new communication tools, as well as acquiring the ability to effectively resolve conflict.
  1. Be prepared to honestly discuss areas of both strength and weakness, which could potentially be uncomfortable.
  1. Be prepared to discuss any resentments that have already built up in your relationship.
  1. Be prepared to address the “bigger” issues: money, religion, sex life, kids, parenting, and dealing with extended family.
  1. Expect premarital counseling to be challenging at times, but well worth it for the success and health of your relationship.

Learn how to express gratitude toward your partner, and appreciate how their presence has enhanced your life. Feeling grateful will make you happier, contribute to your general wellbeing, and increase your satisfaction with the world at large. You can learn how to cultivate gratitude in your relationship here.

Category: Individuals In Relationship · Tags:

Sometimes it Really IS Just About the Trash

The division of household responsibilities can spark intense conflict among many couples. A heated discussion over chores (why the trash hasn’t been taken out yet) is often the convenient forum couples use to vent about deeper conflicts that exist in their relationship.

However, sometimes it really IS just about the trash! Research has shown that when the division of labor is seen as unfair, couples may seriously consider ending their relationship. And even when chores are viewed as equally shared, partners may still be dissatisfied–especially if gratitude and appreciation aren’t regularly expressed for each other’s contributions.

While professors at Arizona State University, Jess Alberts and Angela Trethewey conducted research on how the role of gratitude affects couples’ satisfaction. They found that gratitude not only lessens the negative effects of an unfair division of responsibilities, but a lack of gratitude may even contribute to an uneven division of labor in the first place.  

If one partner isn’t bothered by a sink full of dirty dishes (referred to as having a higher “response threshold” in their study), but his or her partner has a lower tolerance for the kitchen mess, guess who usually ends up doing the dishes? We’ve likely all experienced or witnessed examples of this scenario. Statistics (not surprisingly) show that women perform two-thirds of household tasks, even when they work full time.

This difference in an individual’s level of tolerance (response threshold) can quickly lead to an unequal division of household labor if not addressed. Unfortunately, research has also confirmed that repeatedly jumping in to perform a household duty early on in a relationship, will quickly make it yours to do forever!  

Study results point out that our understanding of why our partner completed the chore is critical. For example, if we feel that our partner cleaned the kitchen for the benefit and good of the household, we are much more likely to express gratitude and appreciation for the act.  

However, if we perceive that our partner cleaned the kitchen because they can’t tolerate mess and did it for their own personal benefit, we’re much less likely be grateful. If you consider your partner’s efforts as a gift, you’re more likely to express your appreciation. This, in turn, creates less resentment on his or her part (regardless of the division of labor) and leads to greater relationship satisfaction.

So, if Johnny thinks his wife, Julie, keeps the kitchen spotless as a contribution for the good of the family, he’s more likely to feel and express gratitude for her efforts. If, however, Johnny views that sparkly kitchen as something she’s doing for herself (because she cannot tolerate a messy kitchen), he’s highly unlikely to express any appreciation.

Recently, in my practice, I addressed this division of labor issue with a couple. The husband had been making more effort now to participate in chores. After taking the trash out, he announced to his wife, “I did it for you” (instead of “I wanted to do my share to help out the household”). We had a good laugh about it in our session, joking that it was indeed her ultimate lifetime dream to have the trash taken out.

The bottom line is that it’s much healthier to understand that your partner is contributing to the household when they do chores (with few exceptions). This allows you to naturally be much more appreciative.

Here are some tips to help eliminate conflict over household chores:

  1. First, determine and understand the differing “response thresholds” of both you and your partner.

  1. Don’t completely take over a chore unless you really enjoy it–otherwise, you will soon “own” it. This advice is best instituted early in the relationship, if possible. Share household tasks from the beginning.

  1. Consider putting chores on a schedule versus waiting until the responsible person decides it needs to be done. Set a time/day for the task to be completed–well before it bothers the “lower threshold” partner.

  1. To fully appreciate your partner’s efforts and express meaningful gratitude, switch tasks every few weeks or months. Experiencing what the other person does and contributes by “walking in their shoes,” will increase your feelings of appreciation for their efforts.

Couples who share household responsibilities and express gratitude for each other’s contributions, clearly have the most successful, satisfying relationships. Working together to avoid any conflicts over chores also keeps partners from taking each other for granted.

If you find you need help eliminating this source of friction in your relationship, don’t hesitate to seek couples counseling for assistance–even if it’s just about the trash.

Category: Couples · Tags: