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The key to love? Researchers say be open, be kind

By Laura Arenschield • Feb 15, 2016 at 10:00 AM

ATHENS, Ohio — We all say we want good communication in our romantic relationships. That means having an open partner whom you can be open with, too.

And, as a recent study by an assistant professor at Ohio University shows, when that openness isn't there, especially in the early stages of dating, we're more likely to feel stressed, unhappy or trapped in the relationship. That's enough to make many of us walk away.

For six weeks, Charee Thompson, who specializes in interpersonal, family and health communication, followed 205 couples who had been dating less than six months. She questioned them about how open they considered their relationships, how satisfied they were with them and whether they felt stress as a result.

The study, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, went a little deeper into a long-established psychological theory that people judge how close they are with a partner by how open that person is about him or herself.

When their needs were not met in the early stages of a relationship, study participants reacted in one of several ways, not all of them positive.

The mostly healthy reactions included approaching a partner and asking him or her to share more about themselves or using humor to lighten the subject.

The not-so-healthy, usually prompted by stress, included punishing the partner by making him or her feel guilty; arguing; giving up feeling that he or she deserved openness in a relationship; or walking away from the relationship entirely.

Those early days of a romantic relationship are important, Thompson said. That's when couples set standards by which they will communicate for the duration of the relationship.

While openness is important — especially on "value-driven" subjects such as children, where you want to live and religion — we don't always want to be open about everything, Thompson said. Those topics could include politics and bad habits.

"It's an interesting dance that we do," she said.

When the dance doesn't go well, stress can take over and can cause long-lasting negative effects. Those can be psychological and physical.

Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, director of the Ohio State University Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, has studied the effect of that kind of stress on couples.

Her research shows that spouses whose marital relationships are stressful heal more slowly than those in strong marriages. And, she said, even small stresses can cause negative health effects.

One study she conducted showed that people who experienced stress immediately before consuming a high-fat, high-calorie meal burned fewer calories in the hours after eating than did those with no stress. The study showed marital stress could add 7 to 11 pounds a year to a person's weight.

"Relationships have very powerful health effects," Kiecolt-Glaser said. "Especially close romantic relationships. ... When it goes badly because one spouse is withdrawing and spouses are being negative or hostile toward each other, we can see an increase in hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and there are physical consequences."

Both Kiecolt-Glaser and Thompson said there are tools people can use to achieve the of communication they want in a relationship.

Thompson said motivation matters. Try to accept that your partner, like you, is an ever-growing person who is capable of change.

It's also important, she said, to believe that your partner is trying to change and has your best interests at heart. She added that it's also important to apologize and try to listen when you are the one falling short in communicating.

"That means when someone brings it up and you're the culprit, you need to not be defensive," Thompson said.

On the flip side, she said, try to create happy moments every day.

"If you bring someone lunch, or you tell them they're beautiful — even saying 'good morning,' " she said. "Every day, little behaviors build up, like investments in a bank."

Kiecolt-Glaser agreed and said those small interactions "grease the relationship."

"You really feel like they're paying attention to what you're doing — they notice and they care," she said. "If you run to the drugstore and they’re like, 'Well, you got the wrong thing,' it doesn’t make you feel closer or warmer.

"I’m a really big believer in the power of being appreciative of what your partner does for you."

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©2016 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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