Words That Wound

Details a study which disproved the fact that communication is the key to a healthy relationship. Comments from Brant Burleson, communication professor at Purdue University and Wayne Denton, psychiatrist at Wake Forest University; Explanation on how strong verbal skills benefit and destroy marriage.

By Amanda Druckman, published on September 1, 1999 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016


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

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

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

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."