- A team of researchers examined whether romantic partners talk with each differently across various topics.
- The study focused on Black couples, who have not had enough attention in relationship research.
- Couples were more able to discuss experiences of racial discrimination and issues they had with their kids.
- Couples were less able to productively discuss financial issues and concerns about relatives.
If you’re open to it, think back on the times when you felt like you and your partner were really able to engage with one another and have fruitful, effective conversations. Now, try to remember moments when it didn’t feel smooth and your encounters were counterproductive and difficult. Is there anything that seems to distinguish these two kinds of moments? For example, perhaps you thought about how stressed you felt when conversations didn’t go well, as opposed to the discussions that flowed smoothly, and you both felt relaxed and rejuvenated. Among what stood out to you in contrasting these situations, did the subject you were talking about come to mind? If it didn’t, that’s entirely understandable.
According to a team of researchers who just published a study on the link between how partners communicate and what they’re talking about, relationship science hasn’t fully considered this matter. Importantly, rather than focusing on White couples in this study, which they rightly noted most relationship research has done, the investigators recruited Black couples.
They asked couples about the nature of their interactions with each other, both in general and in the context of certain subjects. In particular, they asked couples about what it’s like to discuss family members, issues with how their children act, experiences of racism, and economic stress. They also asked couples how content they feel in their relationship.
The researchers found that couples were most able to engage with each other around experiencing racism, and they cited other scholarship around a possible explanation for this. Namely, partners may be able to have a constructive discussion because their focus is on a problem that's external to them. The next topic couples felt they were effective in addressing was conduct issues for their children. In turn, the two topics couples said they were less productive in discussing were their relatives and monetary struggles. Likewise, the research team found that for any particular partner in a relationship, the caliber of their interactions changed depending on the subject matter.
The researchers also found that the nature of a couple’s interactions with each other in virtually all of the four subjects (except family members) was linked to their contentment in their relationship. Additionally, challenges with children were linked with more struggles talking effectively about that issue, and more economic stress was connected with greater difficulty having productive discussions around monetary issues, issues with their children, and racism. As the research team pointed out, economic stress is connected to emotional and relational challenges.
What can we take from this? The researchers highlighted the importance of not only looking at how partners engage with each other broadly, but also considering how couples might experience smoother waters or greater snags in connecting with each other depending on what they’re addressing in the moment. They also referenced the possible utility of applying ways of interacting that work well in one subject area to another. So, in your interactions with your partner, try noticing when you’re more or less able to effectively engage, and consider what you’re talking about. It might provide insights you can use.
Weber, D. M., Lavner, J. A., & Beach, S. R. H. (2023). Couples' communication quality differs by topic. Journal of Family Psychology, 37(6), 909–919. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0001111
Williamson, H. C., Bornstein, J. X., Cantu, V., Ciftci, O., Farnish, K. A., & Schouweiler, M. T. (2022). How diverse are the samples used to study intimate relationships? A systematic review. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 39(4), 1087–1109. https://doi.org/10.1177/02654075211053849