What’s love got to do with … interpersonal communication class

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In anticipation of Valentine’s Day, many students all around the world will be celebrating love with their romantic partners by sending cards, giving gifts, and sharing candlelit meals. While doing this, they will be demonstrating their interpersonal communication skills which help them to competently communicate, interact, and work with individuals and groups or, in this case, a romantic partner. According to Dr. Kelly Morrison, Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and co-author of Reflect and Relate, “love is defined and created by how we interpersonally communicate.”

Much of what’s learned about interpersonal communication is derived from social and mass media, family and peers, personal experiences, and cultural norms and practices. That includes the communication that’s used throughout romantic relationships. But that’s not where the learning needs to end. From combating stereotypes about love as depicted in the movies, to understanding the various stages of falling in love, students can learn a lot about the intersection of romantic relationships and interpersonal communication in a college classroom.

From Hallmark and Disney movies to popular love advice books, misinformation about relationships is pervasive. For example, students often learn from these media that passionate love should be the ultimate relationship goal. In interpersonal communication courses, students learn that there is more than one way to demonstrate love, with passionate love being just one of them. “Our job as educators is to give our students trustworthy knowledge and help them apply it to their close relationship challenges,” said Dr. Steven McCornack, Professor at University of Alabama at Birmingham and co-author of Reflect and Relate.

There’s also an opportunity for students to learn what love is -- and what it isn’t. According to Professor McCornack, it’s not uncommon to conflate physical intimacy with love, but the two do not always correlate. “Across the globe and throughout history, people have been physically involved with those with whom they’re not intimate; and intimate with those with whom they’re not physically involved.” Professor Morrison explains that love is “created and sustained, moment by moment, day in and day out, through our communication, what we share, and how we support one another.”

Further, men aren't from Mars, women aren't from Venus, and there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all way to approach love. The different love attitudes expressed in a relationship lend themselves to vastly different communication styles. “If you possess a more practical, as opposed to a more romantic attitude about love, you likely will also see variations in what and how people communicate about love,” said Professor Morrison.

In addition to tackling misconceptions about romantic relationships, interpersonal communication classes also discuss topics critical to building and maintaining successful relationships: from how to approach conflict to the importance of emotions. This kind of knowledge helps students to make more informed choices regarding how they communicate and respond to another person's communication. “We control our own romantic relationship destinies through the choices we make regarding how we communicate. Our choices determine our communication; and our communication creates our romantic relationship outcomes,” said Professor McCornack.

Learn more about the intersection of romantic love and interpersonal communication from a webinar when the two Macmillan Learning authors and interpersonal communication professors spoke about “love attitudes and relationship maintenance.” The webinar is free for instructors and will provide a complimentary assignment for instructors to use on Valentine’s Day or when otherwise discussing romantic relationships. Access it for free here.