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How Couples Can Improve Their Communication

Positive and negative communication styles during conflict.

Key points

  • Therapists often urge their clients to increase their use of positive communication techniques.
  • However, research shows that decreasing negative communication has greater effect.
  • This is because negative feelings far outweigh positive ones.
Cat Box/Shutterstock
Source: Cat Box/Shutterstock

Conflict is inevitable in any intimate relationship. However, couples differ greatly in the way they communicate with their partners during conflicts.

In the case of happy couples, each person likely states their case firmly but respectfully, and they also listen to what their partner has to say. Although negative feelings may be intense in the moment, they soon fade, since each person now has a better understanding of their partner’s feelings and point of view.

In contrast, unhappy couples may let loose a tirade of insults and trot out a long list of grievances every time they have a fight. Rather than listening to each other, they shout past one another. In the end, they have no better understanding of each other, but instead, their negative attitudes toward their partner are reaffirmed. The sting from such a fight can linger for days.

This observation has led both relationship scientists and couples therapists alike to the conclusion that more positive communication styles yield greater relationship satisfaction. In therapy, couples are coached on using “I” statements rather than “you” statements—“I feel so angry when you…” rather than “You make me so angry when you…” They’re also taught to avoid absolute terms like “always” and “never.”

Increasing Positive Communication

But do positive changes in communication style actually lead to improvements in relationship satisfaction? This is the question that University of Alberta (Canada) psychologist Matthew Johnson and his colleagues sought to answer in a study they recently published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

For this project, Johnson and colleagues made use of data from three different longitudinal studies that measured communication styles (positive or negative) and level of relationship satisfaction in over 4,000 couples on multiple occasions spanning from 16 months to 5 years. On each occasion after the first, the researchers considered whether the couple's communication style had become more positive or more negative and whether their relationship satisfaction had increased or decreased.

If adopting a more positive communication style leads to better outcomes for the relationship, we would expect to see a positive change in communication style at Time 1 leading to an increase in relationship satisfaction at Time 2 and vice versa. However, this isn’t what Johnson and colleagues found.

The three datasets led to conflicting results, and only one finding was consistently robust among all three. Namely, when couples reduced the amount of negative communication during a conflict, they also felt more satisfied with their relationship at that time, but not necessarily at future times. Furthermore, increases in positive communication didn’t predict greater relationship satisfaction, either at that time or the next.

Decreasing Negative Communication

In short, decreasing negative communication helps in the moment but not necessarily long term, while increasing positive communication doesn’t necessarily improve the relationship either now or later. So, are therapists wrong to teach their clients to use more a positive communication style, especially during conflicts? Not necessarily so.

Hurling insults and voicing unrelated grievances do nothing to solve the issue at hand. Instead, they stoke the flames of anger and disappointment, perpetuating the unhappiness each partner feels in the relationship. To the extent that each of you can hold back on negative communication, the more likely you both are to find a workable resolution to the current problem.

And even in non-conflict situations, it’s best to avoid teasing, sarcasm, and other verbal barbs. This is because they leave your partner with lingering psychological wounds that can fester, causing them to doubt your commitment to the relationship as well as their own.

In contrast, positive communication styles can merely sugarcoat problems without fixing them. For instance, “I” statements are more for the benefit of the speaker than the listener. They remind me that I have control over my feelings—I don’t have to get angry because my spouse tosses their wet bath towel on the floor instead of putting it in the hamper.

Of course, from the listener’s perspective, it may not matter whether the speaker says “I feel so angry when you…” or “You make me so angry when you…” In either case, it’s a complaint about their behavior. Just switching to a positive communication style isn't necessarily going to lead to a solution to the problem.

Negative Outweighs Positive

I think there are two take-home messages from this study. First, it’s far more important to cut down on negative communication patterns than it is to practice positive ones. At the very least, they’ll make dealing with conflicts less unpleasant than they would be otherwise.

Second, adopting a positive communication style alone isn’t enough to improve the relationship, in either the short or the long term. A positive communication style in which you clearly express your concerns to your partner and actively listen to theirs is the first step toward resolving conflict. But once the issues have been laid on the table, the real work of finding a solution you can both live with is still a challenge.

Facebook image: Cat Box/Shutterstock

References

Johnson, M. D., Lavner, J. A., et al. (2021). Within-couple associations between communication and relationship satisfaction over time. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/01461672211016920

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