What Is Metacommunication In A Relationship?

Through our words, body language, facial expressions, eye contact, and movements, we are engaging in communication all the time. In relationships, communication is how you and your partner can let one another know your respective needs, feelings, and wants. There are both verbal and non-verbal means of expressing your emotions and desires, but you may be surprised to discover all of the ways in which you send covert, often subconscious, messages to your partner. It's no secret that communication is necessary in a relationship, and so is metacommunication.

The prefix "meta" indicates a self-reference, meaning that what follows the prefix is referring to itself. Therefore, metacommunication is communication about communication. In relationships, metacommunication comprises all of the nuanced ways you communicate to and with your partner. When psychologists first began studying metacommunication in the early 1950s, the focus was on how non-verbal cues, like body language and details in the environment, provide additional context to what a person verbally communicates. In today's world, metacommunication includes all of the ways we communicate in person, but also online through social media and digital methods like text messages. Studies of metacommunication also examine the ways people discuss communication with each other, aka how they communicate about communication. A 2003 study published in the UW-L Journal of Undergraduate Research found that intentional metacommunication habits lead to greater satisfaction in romantic relationships and understanding metacommunication can strengthen relational bonds. Here's how metacommunication can show up in relationships and how you can cultivate intentional metacommunication habits.

We're constantly sending covert messages

Since metacommunication is the examination of how we communicate with others, understanding all of the ways you communicate messages to your partner is the best place to begin digging deeper into the covert metacommunication signals in your relationship. Anne Converse Wilkomm, Assistant Clinical Professor at Drexel University, breaks down communication methods into five categories, which are identified as verbal, non-verbal, written, listening, and visual. 

In the context of relationships, verbal communication constitutes the words you and your partner speak to one another, while written communication includes the words you write through text messages, emails, post-it notes on the bathroom mirror, reminders on the fridge, birthday cards, and love letters, among other forms of written messages. Non-verbal communication is how you convey your thoughts and feelings through body language, including eye contact and facial expressions, whereas visual communication is how you convey meaning through external visual items. For example, visual communication in a relationship might appear in the outfit you choose to wear on a date, the photographs of you and your partner you post on social media, or how you decorate a shared living space. Finally, communication through listening is best exemplified through active listening, which includes reflecting on your partner's communication and letting them know that you've heard what they've expressed and understand their needs, feelings, and wants. Try to think of all the ways you send covert messages to your partner and begin keeping track of them to identify your metacommunication habits.

Pay attention to your attitude

The way you approach your partner can determine the atmosphere within your relationship, and metacommunication plays a huge role in this dynamic. Metacommunication is often conveyed between the lines, meaning that all of the non-verbal ways you communicate can either support or contradict what you say verbally. A lot of metacommunication stems from your attitude or emotional state at a specific moment. When you're stressed or exhausted after a long day, you might convey dismissiveness of your partner by neglecting to greet them, becoming reclusive, or otherwise disengaging from any interaction. When feeling anxious about something, your metacommunication cues may relay themes of being distracted or uninterested when you're with your partner. It's important to note that you don't have to be excitedly animated or enthusiastic to emit affection for your partner, especially when your energy tank is low, but intentional metacommunication is about being aware of your attitude and the covert signals you're communicating. "Be aware of what you intend to communicate and craft your behavioral and emotional behaviors around that," Crystal Shelton, a licensed clinical social worker, tells PsychCentral. Intentionality is the best framework for creating positive metacommunication in your relationship.

Taking stock of your attitude, feelings, emotions, and thoughts when you're around your partner can help you identify how your metacommunication may signal messages that aren't aligned with what you want to convey. Being intentional about cultivating awareness of your attitude, approach, and metacommunication cues can provide opportunities to create positive shifts.

Out with the negative, in with the positive

As you start to notice your metacommunication habits and how various approaches, whether conscious or subconscious, affect your relationship, you can begin to create intentional changes in the messages you emanate. Be mindful of phrases that are easily misconstrued or misinterpreted, like "Just forget it" and "I don't care" or the single word "fine" in response to your partner proposing an idea. Pepperdine University's Boone Center for the Family advises switching up your vocabulary by taking out "just," "finally," "still," "always," and "never" because they can make the other person feel cornered, judged, and unaccepted, particularly during moments of tension or conflict. Beyond verbalizing these words, consider how your body language and metacommunication could signal the elements of dismissiveness and rejection that these words can provoke. If your hands are on your hips and your facial expression is indicative of annoyance, your metacommunication conveys the same messages these words carry without having to verbalize a single syllable.

Swapping out "but" for "and" is another worthwhile vocabulary trade because the possibility and connection emitted by "and" is far more accepting than the dejection of "but." Making intentional efforts to use affirming vocabulary and body language, like smiling and gentle eye contact, can establish intentional metacommunication in your relationship. Prioritize finding ways to regularly uplift and compliment your partner through texts, written notes, and letting them know that you're listening to what they're communicating by leaning in when they speak and embracing active listening.

Incorporate intentional metacommunication to uplift your partner

Paying attention to your attitude, body language, and tone when speaking are excellent ways to become aware of the metacommunication signals you send to your partner. Being aware gives you the opportunity to shift a negative mood to a positive one. Taking this awareness one step further, creating intentional metacommunication messages that uplift your partner and figuring out how to incorporate them can have tremendous benefits for your relationship. The framework for creating intentional metacommunication is simple and consists only of actively thinking about how you can exhibit positive and intentional indications ahead of time. A helpful approach is to consider how you can best support your partner, what your partner's needs are at the moment, and then brainstorming ways to uplift them through intentional metacommunication messages.

Taking small steps is the best way to create lasting change, so don't try to incorporate every habit immediately. To exude positive metacommunication, perhaps you'll focus on smiling more when you're around your partner, leaning in when they're speaking, sending encouraging text messages throughout the day, or posting a photo of your partner with an affectionate caption to your social media. You can also go analog and print photos to frame and place around your home to create a space filled with reminders of your happiest moments together. One tactic to incorporate intentional metacommunication into your relationship is keeping a list of positive habits you've brainstormed and then choosing one habit to practice each week.

Have regular check-ins

Metacommunication has two components, indicating the non-verbal, sometimes subconscious messages that accompany verbal communication, and its namesake practice of communicating about communication. As you learn about intentional metacommunication and how to incorporate it into your own communication, bring your partner into the conversation. Together, you can talk about the current landscape of your communication, including the ways you and your partner communicate through tone, body language, visual communication, written messages, and other covert messages that might be interpreted between the lines. Discussing the ways in which you and your partner communicate can strengthen your relationship by reinforcing the trust and the bond you share. A study from the University of Wisconsin, Madison determined that speaking about metacommunication can deepen the intensity of feelings between a couple by increasing the spectrum and depth of dialogue, extend the length of a healthy relationship, and ultimately change the language, both verbally and through covert metacommunication signals, from "you" and "me" to an attitude of "we".

Scheduling regular check-ins with your partner to discuss your relationship, including your communication, is one of the best things you can do to create a healthy relationship. "The extent to which each partner is skilled at expressing themselves, their needs and their preferences is the greatest indicator of the health and fulfillment of the relationship," Darcy Sterling, a licensed clinical social worker, tells Forbes Health. Sterling adds that the quality of communication in a relationship can predict the fulfillment both people feel in the partnership.

How to talk about communication

You know the many ways people are constantly communicating messages and signals to others, you know how to identify your metacommunication and how to create positive, intentional metacommunication, and you know that having regular discussions with your partner is the key to relationship success. But figuring out exactly how to communicate about communication might be confusing. According to Utah State University, there are several questions you can ask to guide a conversation about communication in your relationship. Together, you and your partner can list out the ways you communicate with one another and suggest tweaks and adjustments that can make one another feel supportively uplifted. Communicate to your partner your appreciation for the positive ways they communicate, like letting them know that the way they respond with empathy and a hug when you're feeling overwhelmed helps to alleviate your frustration. During check-ins with your partner, ask one another to identify on a scale of one to 10 how you're each feeling emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, creatively, and sexually. Discuss with each other how you want to create intentional metacommunication to benefit each area of your relationship.

Together, you and your partner should set intentions that you can both actively incorporate into your relationship. Intentions around metacommunication can be deciding to eliminate negative body language like eye rolls, or perhaps you'll put a whiteboard or notepad on the fridge to exchange positive written messages each day. Exchanging daily affirmations is one of the best habits to adopt.