The Damage of Small Talk in Relationships

Today’s blog post is the first one featured here by Centre therapist Teyhou Smyth. Teyhou is part of the Connolly Counselling Centre team based in London. You can find out more about Teyhou on her bio page here.

couple small talk

Most of us participate in a bit of small talk with a store clerk or in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. It’s almost a social requirement to be able to chit chat about meaningless subjects to pass idle time.

The weather, the winning team on last night’s game, some delicious meal you had at a local restaurant, what’s happening on that tv series you’re both watching.

Small talk can be enjoyable.

Even in our friendships, small talk is part of the dialogue. Often it is the meaningless chats that help us build initial rapport with one another. It is an important social construct. But when small talk becomes the central form of communication in an intimate relationship, it can be damaging.

On some level, the meaningless gab of a couple can be important for maintaining camaraderie. We can’t possibly have deep, meaningful conversations every day over breakfast. That’d be hard to maintain. There is a balance point, though.

When relationships fall out of balance, and the main form of communication is small talk, that is a warning sign.

Danger ahead. Proceed with careful observation.

Why It Is A Warning Sign

The fast answer is, intimate relationships require intimacy. If the conversations with your partner are no different than the ones you have at the local grocery with a stranger, you have a problem.

Vulnerability isn’t easy.

But in order to have a solid connection with a partner, there is a certain amount of vulnerability that one has to allow. Sometimes this surfaces most at the initial stages of a relationship. You’re getting to know one another.

There’s attraction and risk of getting hurt. The vulnerability only heightens the excitement. You tell one another things you haven’t told anyone else. You share your hopes and fears and aspirations.

After awhile when the relationship is no longer new, the true nature of the connection emerges.

It is then that we see the truth in our partners, for better and worse. There is still attraction, but the newness has worn off. It is comfortable. There may be less depth to the conversations since you already know each other very well.

Then things can start to drift a bit. Maybe you take solace in the fact that you’re still friends. Maybe you’re feeling a bit less connected, but the love is still there. You talk, but the conversation is mostly icing, no cake.

There is comfort in the familiarity, but it’s not nourishing anymore. And that is when the damage sets in.

The less you talk about the important things, the less comfortable it becomes. The less comfortable it becomes, the more you will avoid it.

When couples begin to sense a drift in the depth of their connection, it is the perfect opportunity for resentments to sneak in. The emotional distancing that can emerge from these feelings can be hard to repair.

Sometimes couples are able to observe this and find ways to reconnect. If it goes undetected, it can become a source of rejection, resentment and pain. Sometimes infidelity is part of the escape route. Sometimes couples may take their pain inward and feel rejected or interpret it as a sign of their unworthiness. These are the things couples need to guard against. As individuals it is our responsibility to observe our own patterns of behavior in relationships.

Breaking Out of the Small-Talk Dilemma

There are ways to safeguard your relationship from the damage of chronic small talk. It requires the attention and tenacity of both people in the relationship.

Call attention to it:

One of the most difficult parts of breaking out of chronic small talk is naming it and admitting that it has become an issue. Not calling attention to it only perpetuates it. We may try to avoid talking about our disconnection because it feels like we’re admitting to something we then have to face.

While it may be true that avoiding the topic feels safer, it also allows it to fester. Just start the conversation. Even if you’re worried about where it will take you, it’s better than allowing your relationship to turn into never-ending chats about the weather.

Jump in with both feet:

Be brave. Start with a new commitment to being vulnerable with your partner. Tell him/her that you want to be more open and ask permission to share something that’s important to you. Their response will tell you a lot. If there is any amount of love and respect in your relationship, your partner will probably jump at the chance to be there for you.

If your request is met with ambivalence, avoidance, or worse yet, mockery, you’ve got some serious questions to ask yourself about this relationship.

Practice, practice, practice:

If you are working at breaking a habit, one of the most important things to do is practice new ways of doing things. Schedule a certain time every day to talk about the stuff that matters. It may be awkward or contrived at first, but eventually it will become a normal part of your day.

You may end up noticing a shift over time, in which you no longer have to “schedule” it. Deep, meaningful talks may spontaneously begin to emerge. You may also find that to nurture your connection, practicing loving statements can be of benefit. Try some simple ones at first, such as “I admire you because,” or “some of the things I love about you are.”

As you begin to get used to being vulnerable with each other again, challenge yourselves to try more risky ones, such as “I wish” statements about the relationship. If you are feeling very brave consider starting with an, “I’m afraid of” statement.

Use tools:

If you’re not sure where to start in delving into important topics, don’t let that stop you from trying. There are many excellent resources available to help you get deep conversations started. There are books, games and apps dedicated to eliciting good talks.

You and your partner don’t have to go it alone.

If it seems there are fractures in the relationship that you’re having a difficult time working around, it may help to talk with a relationship counselor. Sometimes having an objective person to help untangle communication problems can be highly beneficial.

Try to remember that this likely did not happen overnight. Disconnection and drifting into chronic small talk is very gradual and may take time and practice to overcome. If you and your partner are equally committed to improving the communication in the relationship, it is fixable.

Vulnerability is the first, and the most intimidating step to take.

When you and your partner are risking vulnerability with each other, it will undoubtedly bring you closer. The risk you take together today might be the very thing that saves your relationship in the long run.

[This blog post originally appeared on Teyhou’s website]

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