How Does the Content of Communication Impact Relationships?
New research provides more clarity on moments of connection and discord.
Posted September 30, 2022 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- A team of researchers tested the link between positive and negative communication and relationship contentment in couples.
- The results replicated past research showing that positive and negative communication are different, rather than two sides of the same coin.
- The results also supported a "buffering" pattern across positive and negative communication and relationship happiness.
- The results did not support a "plateauing" pattern, and there were no differences between men and women.
When I’m teaching a class on relationships or working with couples or individuals in therapy, at some point I find myself uttering a deeply human truth: everyone has their “not so bright and shiny” moments as partners.
These are the moments when someone doesn’t choose their words thoughtfully, they’re not paying attention, or they’ve had a tough day and snap at their partner. I could give many more examples, but I’m guessing you probably don’t need me to go on. Of course, people have plenty of “shimmering” moments, too. We’re talking about the times when someone says just the right loving words, is thoughtful and kind amid conflict, is caring and attentive as they listen, or greets their partner with a loving smile and a hug. I’m sure you can think of a host of other instances, too.
But what does it mean when these moments show up in relationships? And how do they tie in with each other? A team of researchers just published a study that examined this question. They sought to build on previous work and illuminate the nature of the connection between:
- Communication that feels beneficial or satisfying to a couple (the research team called these “perceived positive exchanges”)
- Communication that feels unfriendly or dissatisfying (“perceived negative exchanges”)
- How content partners felt in their relationship
The researchers tested three patterns of the ways in which good times and bad times could intersect with each other and with people’s happiness in a relationship.
First, they replicated a wide body of research that has illustrated a linear connection between these two kinds of interactions and how fulfilled couples feel with each other. That is, partners feel happier with each other when their communication generally feels good, and they feel less content when they tend to engage in ways that feel unpleasant.
Second, their findings were in line with the concept of “buffering” and related prior research. This refers to the idea that there’s a sort of dance between the kinds of interactions partners have and how happy they are together. More specifically, the research team noted that among couples who said they didn’t experience a lot of beneficial, supportive communication together, their distressing interactions were more powerfully linked to feeling less content in their relationship compared to couples who enjoyed more connected and warm moments. And what about the couples who usually had more rewarding, pleasant exchanges? In that case, the link between hurtful communication and their happiness together wasn’t as strong. The research team also pointed out that this could work in the other direction: a couple’s tendency to have painful exchanges could act as a buffer (an unfortunate buffer, in this case) against the loving moments that occur.
Third, the researchers tested a “plateauing” pattern. This means that once couples have passed a certain point in how often they experience favorable, thoughtful interactions, or in how much they experience painful, difficult interactions, more of the same isn’t going to make as much of a difference in how happy or unhappy they are together. However, the study’s results didn’t find support for this idea. It's also worth pointing out that the researchers didn’t find evidence of differences across men and women in the study, either.
So, what does all of this mean? As the researchers pointed out, communication that is warm and thoughtful is not merely the flip side of the same coin as communication that is hurtful or unsupportive. They’re separate in their own right. Moreover, the research team noted that a relational environment of largely caring and considerate interactions appears to act as a “buffer” against unpleasant communication, such that the link between painful moments and a couple’s contentment is weaker; and the reverse is true, too.
The researchers were right to state that the study’s design doesn’t allow them to establish any causal relationship, making them unable to specify whether caring and kind interactions actually safeguard the relationship from painful communication, or whether hurtful interactions blunt the beneficial effect of warm, connected communication. The researchers were also correct to highlight that it’s not yet possible to say that these results apply to couples in general due to the limited scope of the partners in their sample, who were opposite-sex, White (mostly), content in their marriage, and who reside in the United States. Accordingly, they’re wise to call for research that includes more diverse couples, and that can advance knowledge of the link between connected versus disconnected interactions and how they intersect with each other to affect relationships.
Cazzell, A.R., Rivers, A. S., Sanford, K., & Schnitker, S. A. (2022). Positive exchanges buffer negative exchanges: Associations with marital satisfaction among U.S. mixed-sex couples. Journal of Family Psychology, 36(7), 1050–1060. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000963