"It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it." I know my husband and I have uttered this cliché phrase in multiple exchanges, and it’s become the one thing in our marriage that we strive to work on the most. Here’s why: When the content of what’s being said isn’t offensive, but the way it’s spoken is hurtful, it’s easy for an offhand comment to turn malignant. And that’s a problem.
Oftentimes we aren’t even aware we’re using a tone until one of us gets upset. For example, he’ll say something as mundane as, "Where is the remote?" (I lose it fairly constantly), and if his inflection is even the slightest bit irritated or accusatory, I’ll either shut down or react an octave above because "Hell no, I will not be spoken to that way!" Then it’s a whole thing.
The truth is, we are all wired to pick up on emotional reactions—and tone can often be a trigger, exaggerating an issue and turning it into a bigger deal than it needs to be. But for me, it’s more than that. For part of high school and much of college, I found myself in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship that proved difficult to escape. Even though my husband tries to be sensitive to my past and never does any of the hurtful things my ex-boyfriend did, if he ever uses a tone of voice that I feel is dismissive, frustrated, or condescending, it can instantly hurl me back to those dark times. Because I’m embarrassed by my past—for toiling so long with such a toxic person, angry at the toll it took—I tend to dish the tone back without thinking.
But regardless of what your past may be, it’s easy for a negative tone to become a bad habit, for any couple. As linguistics expert Deborah Tannen notes, "We all have unique communication styles, influenced by many factors such as age, culture, and geography. However, there are different patterns of communication, and when those patterns clash, it can wreak havoc on relationships."
Yet it wasn’t until I started doing the research that I found out just how important tone of voice can be for marital bliss. Turns out, I wasn’t irrationally sensitive but actually on to something.
Tone of voice can predict your happy ever after.
The University of Southern California actually went so far as to create an algorithm that could predict marital satisfaction more precisely than a human expert by using the recorded tone of couples communicating with each other during therapy sessions. The algorithm was able to pick up on things like pitch and intensity, tracking inflections in the voice that indicate moments of high emotion, and then determine the likelihood of marital success.
“Psychological practitioners and researchers have long known the way that partners talk about and discuss problems has important implications for the health of their relationships," researcher Brian Baucom said. And this study provided an objective way to prove that when couples speak respectfully to one another, the overall level of happiness they report in their relationship is higher.
The further we journey beyond the honeymoon phase of a relationship or marriage, the more comfortable we become with our significant other. Which is good—until that comfort leads to showing sides of ourselves that aren’t always pretty. But how do we fix it? How do we become better communicators and help our relationships thrive?
Mindfulness and empathy will help your tone—and strengthen your connection.
A study published in the journal Emotion found that compassion is one of the most important qualities for a happy marriage. When tone becomes negative, it's usually because it lacks compassion. Here are some strategies to keep that love for your spouse in your tone of voice—even if you might not feel it:
01. Make it a mantra that you both embrace. My husband and I created a 2018 resolution to "lead with love." I even put those words up on the light board in our living room, which is totally cheesy, but a constant reminder nonetheless. I mean, it's important to remember before you open your mouth that you're speaking to the love of your life, right? Sure, there may be times when legit frustration blocks that out for a moment, but for petty day-to-day stuff, remembering the simple fact that you’re on the same team and that you love each other can make a difference.
02. Take a breath and slow down. Another pro tip comes from Robert Leahy, Ph.D, Director of the American Institute of Cognitive Therapy. He reasons that sometimes we approach an issue with a negative tone of voice because we want to be heard and understood. “Keep your voice in a calm tone, don’t get carried away. Slow it down, quiet it down. You will be heard more clearly with a softer [voice].”
03. Lead with your whole body. It’s also important to be mindful of your body language. This can be anything from an eye roll to folded arms. And it’s equally important no matter whether you’re the one doing the talking or the listening. Psychologist John M. Grohol recommends maintaining eye contact, keeping a neutral body stance, or sitting next to the person when you’re talking to them.
04. Lay off the curse words. And one suggestion I personally think is important is trying not to swear. I know we’re adults, but “Where’s the remote?” goes over a lot better than “Where’s the effing remote?” Cursing escalates the situation and makes what you’re saying all the more aggressive. I’m not saying you need to go making a swear jar or anything, but leaving out swearing, even if you think it helps make your point, will help keep things positive and constructive.
If you’ve been working on your tone for a while and things aren’t improving, it’s also important to remember that counseling is a good option—even if your marriage isn't in shambles. It can actually be an empowering decision that shows you and your partner are truly invested in your relationship. Depending on your insurance, couples therapy can be expensive, but sites such as Talkspace and BetterHelp, a hub for connecting couples to counselors, are both great resources for affordable digital therapy as well.
Language is one of the essential ways we interact with the world. These tips for improving the tone of voice, as Leahy duly notes, are for all of us—from romance to friendship to nitpicky in-laws, to yes—even advancing your career. Once you become a master of your tone of voice, you can apply these skills to every facet of your life. It can take work, but healthy and happy relationships are a pretty great reward.