How we communicate with others is integral to how satisfying and successful relationships with those others are. People in long-term romantic relationships know this to be the case, but research has for years sought to parse out exactly what the connections among different forms of communication and relationship satisfaction actually are.
Which Comes First?
After all, it’s complex, with a chicken-or-egg quality to it. Aspects of communication drive relationship satisfaction, and relationship satisfaction sets the stage for more constructive communication and conflict resolution. Conversely, relationship satisfaction could stabilize relationships, allowing couples to experience a greater proportion of negative communications because overall satisfaction might render the relationship more resilient to internally-generated stressors.
As researchers Jolin, Lafontaine, Brassard and Lussier, authors of a recent study in the Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science (2022) note, the literature on this subject is rich but lacking in some regards. For example, few studies have looked at the direction the communication-satisfaction relationship takes (what leads to what), nor has as much work been done on actor-partner effects—whether communication affects the speaker or the listener, and in what ways.
Studying Positive and Negative Communication in Relationships
Jolin and colleagues describe two categories of communication studies: positive (or constructive) and negative (or nonadaptive). Positive communication includes collaborative problem solving and sharing of feelings; Negative includes defensiveness, contempt, distancing or withdrawal, criticism, being demanding, and not letting things go (pursuing). How they are connected to relationship satisfaction and dissatisfaction is largely correlational, leaving open the question of which leads to which, and for whom.
To address such questions, Jolin and colleagues analyzed data from a large study of couples with a focus on communication and relationship satisfaction. They used a statistical approach called “APIM” (Actor-Partner Interdependence Model), which analyzes all the possible relations among communication and relationship satisfaction (eg positive actor communication precedes greater partner satisfaction, positive actor communication precedes actor satisfaction, negative partner satisfaction precedes positive actor satisfaction, and so on) to test all the possible paths for significance.
They studied 311 heterosexual couples using measures spaced one year apart, which included demographic information, the Dyadic Adjustment Scale for relationship satisfaction, and the Communication Patterns Questionnaire, which looks at three aspects of positive communication and five negative ones, as described abover. The couples were either married or cohabitating, with an average relationship duration of 23 years, most with older children.
One Factor Stands Out
The study found a significant effect of one’s own communication on relationship satisfaction a year later. Specifically, one’s own negative communication patterns at the beginning of the study led to one’s own lower satisfaction—but not one’s partner’s satisfaction—one year later.
In addition, the researchers found connections expected, for example positive communication earlier on was associated with subsequent positive communication, relationship satisfaction at the beginning was linked with relationship satisfaction at the end, and so on. The most prominent finding was that our own negative communication may cause our own, but not our partner’s, relationship dissatisfaction.
Future studies with a larger number of couples or over a longer span of time may provide more nuanced findings, such that we see how our own communication patterns may affect others. However, the finding that our own communication choices—particularly unconstructive ones like defensiveness, contempt, criticism, abandonment, and overly zealous engagement—end up undermining our own future satisfaction is essentially optimism. While we cannot do as much to change others’ behavior, we are more likely to be able to shift our own communication style through awareness, planning, and deliberate effort.
Make That Change
Studies of personality show that when asked, most people will want to change their behavior to enhance useful traits such as conscientiousness and open mindedness, and efforts to change personality do seem to work. Doing so requires identifying specific behaviors associated with those traits, practicing them regularly, and keeping a log of progress for accountability.
Future communication research identify a parallel approach—by identifying negative communication habits in ourselves we may set the stage for the future greater satisfaction in our relationships. Identifying ways we speak that convey criticism and defensiveness, learning to inhibit such responses and saying nothing or opting for more constructive communications may help move the needle for relationships fraught with destructive conflict.
Given that current positive and negative communications are, respectively, associated with future positive and negative communications suggests that changes now will be sustained down the road, choose wisely. For people working to change how they communicate, in addition to identifying negative patterns and planning for positive substitutions to practice better “communication hygiene”, use of tools that bolster emotion regulation will help maintain presence of mind during heated interactions, making it easier to make constructive communication choices.
For many, practices like mindfulness meditation and self-compassion-based approaches, when used properly, can help provide emotional grounding and improve executive functioning, increasing the odds of spontaneous positive communication and enabling us more effectively to manage our own side of the communication.