Words That Wound


It's been said a million times: Communication is the key to a healthy relationship. But new research may shut everyone up once and for all.

Brant Burleson, Ph.D., and Wayne Denton, M.D., have found that stellar discussion skills can actually do more harm than good in ailing relationships.

In their study, published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, 30 content couples and 30 distressed pairs completed exercises to show how accurately they interpret their spouses' remarks, predict the impact of their own words, express their feelings and process social cues--an ability known as interpersonal cognitive complexity.

Burleson, a communications professor at Purdue University, and Denton, a Wake Forest University psychiatrist, found that communication skills in and of themselves don't make or break a marriage, and men's skills don't seem to matter much at all. What's important is how women use their skills, and whether their relationship is calm or conflict-ridden.

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In peaceful couples, the stronger a wife's verbal skills, the more her spouse liked her. But in rockier relationships, well-spoken wives used their talent for "language and psychology to inflict pain," addressing their husbands with especially wounding words.

Good language skills, then, can make bad marriages worse. Says Burleson: "Talking isn't always a panacea."

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