John Howard is a therapist and relationship expert. He is the CEO of Ready Set Love video programs for couples, and Presence Therapy, a wellness center focusing on mental health in Austin, Texas. His mission is to bring the science of healthy relationships to people everywhere.
Below, John shares 5 key insights from his new book, More Than Words: The Science of Deepening Love and Connection in Any Relationship. Listen to the audio version—read by John himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Connection matters more than communication.
We’ve been taught that communication is the key to a great relationship, but that’s because communication theory was all the rage in the field of psychology during the 1970s when many relationship health models were developed. In the last 15 years, neuroscience has illumined what happens in the brain during human interactions, and what really drives fulfilling relationships. It turns out that it’s connection. Connection is a sense of feeling safe and secure with someone, being relaxed in their presence, and trusting that they care and have your back.
Connection is determined primarily by primitive and subconscious elements of the brain. We’re wired for survival much more than love, so the brain is primarily concerned with measures of safety and security. What the brain seeks most from partner relationships is feeling more secure in the world, which is why humans tend to pair-bond. The brain looks to answer security questions first before it moves on to other relationship tasks. By focusing on a sense of safety and security, you can answer the subconscious questions the brain asks and put others’ nervous systems at ease, which opens up fun, play, romance, friendship, conversation, and many other aspects of relationship life that make our bonds fulfilling.
When we feel connected to someone, we interpret their words positively, but when we don’t, the opposite happens. The brain is suspicious until it feels secure. Connection drives bonding, interest, care, and interpretation of our words. We all make errors in our emotional appraisal of others and in communication, but connection is the override that corrects those errors. So when you’re talking to your best friend, for example, they can say things the wrong way sometimes, and you’ll still trust the goodwill in the relationship and give them the benefit of the doubt. But when you’re speaking with someone you’re not fully trusting of, even good communication skills aren’t enough to make you feel connected.
2. Connection is determined subconsciously and nonverbally.
Primitive regions of the brain calculate security quickly and manage our fight-or-flight responses. Neurons in the gut and throughout the body assess security via physical and other cues, which are relayed to fast detectors in the midbrain that apply emotion to those signals. This all happens before our frontal lobes engage and we think about what’s happening. While the thinking mind and the fast, primitive brain will eventually intersect and trade notes, the gut sense we have of someone lingers, and determines how connected we feel more than our thinking does. 90 percent of the information that flows between people in an interaction is outside of conscious awareness, and experts estimate that as much as 70 to 80 percent of communication is nonverbal. While we may not be aware of the 90 percent that the brain gathers, it shapes how connected we feel, if our bodies and emotional brains are secure and relaxed, and if we care.
“90 percent of the information that flows between people in an interaction is outside of conscious awareness, and experts estimate that as much as 70 to 80 percent of communication is nonverbal.”
While our words can convey information, people look to nonverbals for context: facial expression, eyes, tone of voice, and body language all indicate how our words should be interpreted. For example, if someone says, “I love you,” but their eyes and face are not consistent with that emotion, the words don’t count for much, and we remain suspicious. But if someone gives us a loving glance, they may not need to say much for us to feel cared for.
It’s important to care more about how communicating feels rather than the topic being discussed. This is known as process over content, a focus taught by many leading marital therapists. When you take care of how interacting feels until it is relaxed, secure, and pleasant, then communication flows more easily, minds open, and words are interpreted more generously.
3. Relationship health is as important as mental and physical health.
Research is clear that relationship health is on par with diet and exercise in shaping our physical well-being and longevity. Dysfunctional relationships are considered one of the highest forms of stress because our nervous systems seek connection to soothe ourselves from the challenges of life, and our relationships tend to impact our lives every day. Humans are tribal mammals who often pair-bond to increase our sense of security. When a partner relationship is off, both our mental and physical health is deeply affected.
These three domains of wellness—physical, mental, and relational—are intertwined. Not feeling connected increases stress, affects our sleep, compromises our immune systems, and can shorten our lifespans. Conversely, connection offers positive health benefits, such as reduced stress, increased resilience, greater happiness, and better health. Relationship issues impact mental health and can exacerbate mental health issues, whereas strong relationships have a protective impact on mental health. Deepening connection improves our health and works to heal mental health issues, reduce anxiety, support us in grief, and improve self-esteem.
“Relationship health is on par with diet and exercise in shaping our physical well-being and longevity.”
4. The language of the nervous system.
The first step to connect more deeply is to prioritize a feeling of safety and security in our interactions with others. Not just a sense of physical safety, but emotional security as well. It’s OK to not have all the answers, but it’s important to say, “I care about you, and we’ll figure it out together.” It’s also important to be fully present in our interactions, to allow the nervous system enough time and direct cues to measure connection. If we’re distracted and multitasking, it’s hard for the nervous system to gauge the cues that convey connection. We don’t have to be fully present all the time (it’s OK to cook together, or engage in hobbies side by side), but at least a few times a day, it’s helpful to engage with full attention. Keep in mind that our nervous systems have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to measure connection, and we’ve only had modern communication technology for about 50 years, so the nervous system hasn’t adapted yet to connecting via phones and text.
It’s also important for people to be present with each other at the same time. I call this “landing on the same little patch of grass.” That’s the kind of joint presence that allows love to flow and deepen. Therapists have noticed that partners often trade availability; sometimes we may be fully present but our partner is not, and vice versa. We do this because emotional intimacy can be unfamiliar or awkward—we don’t know what to do with it, so we go back to distractions when moments to connect present themselves. It’s important to breathe into those moments, look at one another, minimize distractions, and fully engage. That allows you to notice nuances of emotion, and convey love and connection clearly. Practicing present-moment emotional intimacy retrains your nervous systems to make bonding easier in subsequent interactions.
The “language of the nervous system” represents six cues that the primitive brain pays attention to more than words. The first is physical proximity: how close we are when interacting changes the context of words to the brain. Touch is another primary communicator of connection, saying “I’m here,” and “I care about you” more efficiently than words. We can look for opportunities to sit a little closer to our loved ones, and hold their hands when walking or having dinner.
Mammals often use eye contact to measure the nervous system, because the eyes provide a live window into activation and emotion. Even if eye contact is culturally incompatible, or uncomfortable due to neuroatypicality, it is valuable to measure cues on the face or in body language within one’s comfort level and cultural practice. Using eye contact or facial gazing also allows us to communicate kindness and warmth directly to others’ nervous systems via our own face and eyes. Our tone of voice is another primary communicator, because our nervous system listens much the way dogs listen: tone first, words second. Tone communicates intent and context, meanwhile words convey information but not how the information will be interpreted. Body language and speed of response are also direct communicators to the nervous system. In in-person interactions, how quickly we respond when others seek our attention is an important measure of priority, value, and whether others are responsive enough for us to rely on.
“Successful relationships are more about skill than compatibility.”
5. The power of practice to reshape relationship skills.
Most relationship behaviors are automatic—they come from the fast, procedural system that can react faster than cognitive thinking. But while many of our relationship behaviors come from the automatic system, that doesn’t mean they can’t be reshaped. The problem with simply talking about issues in our relationships is that there is no procedural remapping to help change habits. Imagine if soccer players talked about how they were going to hit the ball better, but never went out to practice. Human interactions involve a large amount of information traveling at a fast rate, invoking automated, habitual responses from the nervous system. In other similar activities, such as sports and music, that move quickly and require learned muscle memory, we rely on practice to train our procedural memory, so we can be naturally better without having to slow down and think. Relationship skills need much the same kind of training. Procedural remapping develops automated healthy habits, and weans us from unhealthy habits.
I’ve often thought that children would benefit from learning about relationship health in school—that we should teach the principles of healthy relationships, such as mutuality, empathy, emotional support, and respecting diverse views. While such education would be immensely valuable, kids would also need to practice those skills to acquire them as habits—just as adults need to. Such practice is not difficult, however. In fact, it can be fun, playful, and bonding. Practicing relationship skills not only improves habits, but it also brings people together in the process of growth, and creates opportunities for feedback without criticism that can devalue connection.
In practice, partners take a team approach to issues, using “we” language such as, “How can we get better at this?” Rather than trading “I” statements that can lead to impasses or debates, partners work together to practice their weak areas and turn them into strengths. How are we going to get better at relationship skills, most of which are automated, if we don’t practice? While partners often rely on judgement or criticism to address relationship dissatisfaction, inviting care is more effective. Inviting care asks our partner to help support us in an issue and to work together to improve it. It’s a positive use of vulnerability to elicit empathy and teamwork. Inviting to practice solidifies those new skills into the procedural memory of both partners, creating new relationship habits.
Relationships are a path of personal growth. Through shared life, we learn to view our blind spots, and can heal and shore up weak areas via mutual support. Successful relationships are more about skill than compatibility. Healthy habits need to be developed—none of us have them perfectly built, and may not have obtained them from our previous experiences. The good news is that relationships can be strong, adaptable, and resilient, and can offer a tremendous foundation for continued learning and growth. They can serve as safe and healing sources of support in our lives for our individual dreams and goals. This is true of friendships, family relationships, and romantic partnerships.
To listen to the audio version read by author John Howard, download the Next Big Idea App today: