We've all speculated about that couple in the restaurant, the one that sits there in stony silence. Are they bored? Furious? Frustrated? All of the above?
The British dating site ForgetDinner.co.uk recently set off a fresh wave of hand-wringing when it claimed that a couple married for 50 years will speak for an average of only three minutes during an hourlong dinner.
But Terri Orbuch isn't all that concerned.
"As a relationship expert, I do not talk about quantity; I talk about consistent, quality communication," says Orbuch, a research scientist at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan who has studied 373 married couples for more than 20 years. "You can have a two-hour conversation and not talk about anything of substance or value or quality."
So how do you cultivate and sustain the kind of communication that has actually been tied to long-term, happy marriages?
Consider setting aside 10 minutes a day for quality conversation, says Orbuch, who recently wrote about the practical implications of her research in "5 Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great" (Delacorte Press, $26).
"Many couples think they're communicating with each other" when they sort out who will pick up the kids, pay the bills or call the grandparents, says Orbuch. But that's not the kind of communication she's talking about.
"In the (research) literature, as well as for my couples, communication means you're sharing and really getting to know one another," she says.
Quality communication is defined somewhat differently from study to study, but research consistently has shown a link between happy marriages and "self-disclosure," or sharing your private feelings, fears, doubts and perceptions with your partner.
In 1987, a review in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy found that higher rates of self-disclosure were tied with higher rates of marital satisfaction. Expression of love and support was also linked to happy marriages.
More recently, a 2010 study in the journal BMC Medical Research Methodology found that "readiness for self-disclosure" was associated with higher marital quality.
Typically, Orbuch says, romantic relationships begin with a lot of sharing and excitement. ("You like your baked potatoes with sour cream? Oh, my gosh! So do I!") But as time goes on, children, elderly parents, exercise routines, volunteer work and even hobbies can push the relationship to the back burner.
Some couples recognize the problem and respond quickly. Others want to respond and aren't exactly sure how. And some don't see the problem until it's too late.
"One day you wake up, and you don't know who (the other) person is," Orbuch says.
Every single day is a good starting point for couples seeking to reconnect by following her 10-minute rule, she says.
You might ask your partner about his or her favorite book, best friend or dream vacation. Why doesn't he get along with his brother? What would she do if she won the lottery? Couples in Orbuch's study who discussed such topics for as little as 10 minutes a day were much happier, she says, and less likely to divorce.
Her study also found that "affective affirmation" — basically, behavior that makes your partner feel loved, cared for or special — plays a role in happy marriages and that men need it more than women. Affective affirmation can be as simple as a hug, a thank you or buying a partner's favorite food. Men tend to favor gestures of affirmation over words, Orbuch says. Women tend to go with verbal affirmation.
It's OK to fulfill the requirements of the 10-minute rule by phone or e-mail a few times a week. But you have to talk in person on the other days, and you have to ask questions that relate to your partner's inner life: his or her goals, values, best friends or sources of stress.
"Ten minutes is not that long, when you think about it," says Orbuch. "It just means paying attention to your partner and asking one question (and responding when) they ask one question."
Try to touch on goals, values, important friendships or sources of stress. Avoid household chores (who's getting the milk?) and other minutiae.
Here are a few conversation starters you can try from Orbuch's book, "5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great":
* What's your favorite movie? Why?
* Are you closer to your mom or dad? Why?
* What is the one thing you really want to accomplish in the next two years?
* What are you most afraid of?
* What age do you feel like inside? Why?
* What was the one thing you hated most as a kid?
* What are the top three worst songs of all time?