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Studies have found that couples who maintain a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative communications are far more likely to remain happy. "Using nicknames and made-up language is an easy way to inject positive communication into everyday life," says Jamie Turndorf, Ph.D., a New York City relationship therapist.
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updated 4/5/2009 2:08:52 PM ET 2009-04-05T18:08:52

Lovey-dovey language — even your own — can be so corny it makes you want to puke. But researchers have found that it might actually serve a purpose: Pet names and code phrases pave the way to a playful, resilient, and satisfying relationship. One study on couples' "insider language" published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships reported that the more goofy names, made-up terms, and covert requests for nooky a couple used, the higher their relationship satisfaction tended to be.

The quantity of sweet or silly nothings you utter on any given day may be even more important than the quality, says Jamie Turndorf, Ph.D., a New York City relationship therapist. Studies have found that couples who maintain a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative communications are far more likely to remain happy. "Using nicknames and made-up language is an easy way to inject positive communication into everyday life," Turndorf says. In fact, it's probably the single easiest thing you can do to keep your relationship going strong.

Whether it's baby talk or coded conversation ("It's getting chilly." Translation: "Let's leave now."), the overall message is: The two of you are tight. "You are saying, symbolically, that you care enough about the other person and the relationship to develop your own way of speaking," says Carol Bruess, Ph.D., the director of family studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a co-author of "Belly Button Fuzz and Bare-Chested Hugs: What Happy Couples Do." "You've got your own private world, your own mini culture."

The meaning behind a moniker
Pet names also create a boundary, says Pat Love, co-author of "How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It." "It's a way to identify the relationship as exclusive," she says. "It's like an auditory marker." When people around you overhear your cutesy conversation, they know you're committed to each other.

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The inside banter can also serve as a fast-forward button, says Lillian Glass, Ph.D., a communication and body-language expert based in Los Angeles. Sometimes, after a rough day at work, you just want to come home, flop onto the couch, and pop open a bottle of something smooth and red. How great is it when your partner knows that "the usual" is code for "My imbecile boss just wasted six hours of my life with mindless busy work and I'm really in a mood right now"? Statement, sentiment, and your current mental state all rolled into two words —no need to relive the whole disastrous day blow by blow.

Personalized lingo not only can bond a relationship — it can bail it out, too. University of Western Ontario psychology professor Lorne Campbell, Ph.D., has researched the use of humor during conflicts. In a study published in the journal Personal Relationships, Campbell found that when goofing around is used to help resolve disputes, it ultimately strengthens the relationship. Tossing in an inside joke during a would-be brawl not only relieves the tension, he says, but brings you back to the present.

Cementing memories
It's no coincidence that new couples give each other nicknames that are sugary and food-related. Cupcake. Honeybun. Peaches. "Sweet is an unequivocally positive descriptor," Glass says. "You're comparing the other person with a treat — something special that you look forward to every time." As a relationship matures and trust builds, you may develop pet names that refer to a feature or personality trait of your partner (like calling your boyfriend Leo when his beard grows shaggy and out of control). That kind of "just between us" language drives home how well you know each other.

Every shared experience, Glass says, opens doors for more nicknames and inside jokes, which become earmarks for your most meaningful memories. Whether he calls you Rodeo, after the horseback-riding trip you took on your first anniversary, or you call him Speed Racer, for the time he drove 90 mph to get you to the airport on time, the names are a way of tracking your romantic history. "You have a word that signifies a time, a date, and a place, and it takes you back to that moment," Glass says.

Of course, for a nickname to work, both parties have to be happy with it. If it annoys you when your man calls you Stinky in memory of your bad bout with Indian food last fall, that's definitely not going to bring you any closer. "You're putting your trust in the other person to treat you in a safe and intimate way," Glass says. "Tread carefully."

The one must-say phrase
What if you and your man would rather cut your tongues out than utter a ridiculous nickname? Don't worry; you're not doomed. Worse, Turndorf says, is a relationship in which "I love you" is hardly ever said. Still, she encourages couples to come up with as many catchphrases as they can stand. They don't have to be gooey and sweet — funny is fine. But one big red flag to watch for is if your partner stops calling you by your pet name, Love says. "It's like calling a naughty kid by his full name. It sends the signal 'I'm not being intimate with you anymore.'" When that happens, it's time to figure out what in your relationship needs fixing.

Bottom line: Having a shared language can only help strengthen the connection you feel with your partner. So swallow your pride and bring on the shmoopy.

© 2012 Rodale Inc. All rights reserved.

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