Laura Stafford. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. Sage Publication. 2009.
Communication and the quality of romantic relationships are strongly related. Generally, people think that bad communication leads to bad relationships and good communication leads to good relationships. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. There is little agreement on what constitutes good communication. For some people, hashing out every minute detail of their thoughts is critical, while others prefer to keep to themselves. Similarly, perceptions vary widely on the elements that make up a good relationship. One person’s dream relationship may well be another’s nightmare. Nonetheless, my goal in this chapter is to present some ideas as to how spouses and other intimate partners communicate in effective and not so effective ways.
Our beliefs influence our behavior, so I begin by presenting some commonly held irrational and dysfunctional beliefs surrounding relational communication. This is followed by a discussion of both communication skills and different types of couples. In addition, I will outline research findings concerning communication processes, in the context of intimate relationships, such as self-disclosure, conflict, support, sexual communication, and small talk. I consider an area of research known as relational maintenance, and I close by offering some practical suggestions for improving communication in intimate relationships.
Dysfunctional and Irrational Beliefs Concerning Communication Skills
Numerous dysfunctional or irrational beliefs surround communication in intimate romantic relationships. Holding such beliefs is linked to problematic relationships. Here are a few such beliefs regarding relational communication:
- Poor communication is the number one problem in relationships.
- Poor communication is the primary cause of bad relationships.
- Increasing communication improves relationships.
- Partners should be completely honest with each other.
- Gender differences in communication cause relational difficulties.
Poor communication is widely viewed as the major problem in relationships. The idea that bad communication is the root of all (or most) evil in relationships is deeply entrenched in our culture. When poor communication is seen as the problem, then improving or increasing communication is typically seen as the solution. Indeed, improving communication (learning better communication skills) is the number one prescription offered by pop psychologists for troubled couples. However, communication itself is seldom the real problem. Rather, fundamental conflicts in values or beliefs are the major cause for most relational problems. Improved communication might help individuals understand the problems better and perhaps provide a means for tackling them. Yet even then, understanding a problem and agreeing on the solution are not the same. Many problems in relationships occur because of disagreements as to how to spend money, different standpoints on religion, dissimilar views of the roles of women and men in marriage, and many other ingrained values or beliefs. Consider a situation in which one partner desires children and the other does not. The couple can talk until they are blue in the face, with great skill; nonetheless, no amount of good communication will resolve this basic difference in desires. This is not to say that the way you communicate is unrelated to the quality of your relationship. We just must be cautious in the belief that communication is some magic panacea for relationships. Otherwise, real problems remain hidden.
Though communication skill training is frequently prescribed for multiple problems, usually communication skill training can only fix communication problems. Let us consider the following scenario. A wife feels as though her husband is not paying attention to her, though in actuality, he is; the husband just does not display the nonverbal cues that the wife finds consistent with being heard and understood. Communication skills training could teach the husband to use more eye contact and offer some “huh huhs” to help the wife feel that she is being listened to. On the other hand, if the husband simply does not want to pay attention to his wife or doesn’t care if she feels listened to or not, that is, if he has little motivation, there is little to be gained from skills courses that “teach” him to use eye contact and offer feedback.
If bad communication is believed to be the problem in relationships, this logically leads to the next belief that bad communication causes bad relationships. Though labeled as a dysfunctional belief, poor communication can actually lead to poor relationships. The belief is dysfunctional if we fail to recognize that bad communication is unlikely to be the primary problem. It is also dysfunctional when we believe that poor communication skills always precede a bad relationship. We can just as easily turn this idea around. That is, studies that suggest having a distressed relationship leads to poor communication. Often, both partners are highly skilled communicators when talking with people other than their partner. Such skills simply disappear when interacting with their own partner. This indicates that due to dissatisfaction with the relationship, one partner or both no longer bother to try to communicate successfully. They let ill feelings impede their motivation to try to use their skills.
Perception plays a part in these circumstances. If you and I are in a relationship, and I perceive our relationship to be on the rocks or have decided I do not care for you anymore (regardless of the reason), these negative feelings lead to negative perceptions. This makes it quite difficult for me to see your communication as positive or even neutral because I am expecting negative communication. Consider the simple comment, “You got a haircut.” If this comment comes from someone with whom I have a positive relationship, I am likely to interpret this as a compliment. If it comes from someone with whom I have a bad relationship, I am more likely to see it as a criticism. In other words, troubled couples are more likely to interpret everyday remarks or simple observations as criticism and thus become defensive. This leads to worse communication and a worse relationship. This, in turn, leads to even worse communication. The couple is in a downward spiral. Alternatively, an everyday neutral comment between satisfied partners can be misperceived as a positive statement, such as a compliment, and rather than a negative cycle, a positive one occurs.
In short, when it comes to good and bad communication and good and bad relationships, we have a question of the chicken and the egg: Which came first? We do have evidence that poor communication can lead to relational troubles. Still, this is not the case nearly as often as most people think it is. The reverse is just as, if not more, likely: A bad relationship or negative perception of one’s partner leads to poor communication and even to seeing negative communication when it is not there. The probable case is that bad communication (or perceptions of bad communication) is not the heart of the problem. Rather, such communication and perceptions are symptoms of the problem, symptoms that cannot be ignored. If we can improve our relationship and our perception of our partner, better communication skills can follow without necessarily trying to improve our communication.
Still, the belief holds that communication is the problem and two people simply need to communicate more. As a culture, we tend to believe that increasing communication helps relationships. Many pop psychologists and self-help books reinforce this belief. Yet when people say they wish they could communicate more, they might want to remember the adage about being careful what you wish for. Increasing communication incurs the risk of increased negative communication. If we consider that poor relationships might lead to poor communication, increasing communication could simply lead to increased poor communication, leading us further along a downward spiral.
Partners should be completely honest with each other. As foreshadowed in the previous paragraph, this thinking is also flawed. In the 1960s, slogans such as “Tell it like it is” became mainstream. With this generation, came the belief that relational partners should be completely open and honest with each other. Partners should not live a lie, and if a relationship was not strong enough for the full truth, it was not a relationship worth having. Such views radically changed the way people thought about communication. An overemphasis on complete disclosure and complete honesty led us toward a belief system that still surrounds today’s relationships. Research has clearly documented that many messages can be honest but hurtful, and more often than not, such messages result in negative consequences for the individual and for the relationship.
The final irrational belief presented here, a bit different from the others, is that the sexes communicate differently. This is the idea that women and men differ in their communication in such fundamental ways that communication problems are inevitable. If this were true, by this logic, homosexual relationships should be conflict-free, whereas heterosexual relationships should be much more distressed. Research has found, however, that neither homosexual nor heterosexual partnerships are better than the other at communication within their romantic relationships. Yet among heterosexual couples, the way females and males communicate has taken much of the heat for relational problems. Though some strongly believe that there are gender differences in communication and that such gender differences can cause harm, many social scientists argue that gender differences in communication (and ways of thinking and acting) are minimal. Numerous meta-analyses (studies of studies) have found gender differences in communication to be small and largely inconsequential.
Why then do so many people think that such differences are prevalent? Perception, again, plays a role. We see differences, even when they are not there, because we expect them. A woman who talks little during a discussion of intimate topics is more likely to be seen as shy, whereas the same behavior in a man is attributed to males’ dislike of discussing intimate topics.
The belief that women and men communicate differently is problematic because it often causes relational harm by obscuring or escalating the real problems. Why try to talk about an issue or work on a problem if that is just the way women and men are? I might be dissatisfied if my male husband does not open up to me, even if I assume that this is normal for a guy. I could completely miss the fact that he wants to talk with me but is shy. If I am too entrenched in my belief, I do not even notice his desire to talk or do not offer him the opportunity to talk then despite his desire. Therefore, he does not talk more, and I continue being dissatisfied that he does not.
People are more likely to interact in a manner similar to their partner than in a way predicted by gender. People tend to reciprocate behavior. If I attack you in conversation, you are likely to attack me, regardless of our genders. If I disclose to you, you are likely to disclose to me. In other words, how your partner argues or manages conflict is much more predictive of how you argue than is your gender.
The idea of good communication is central to dysfunctional beliefs. Yet there is a difference between good communication (or good communication skills) and good communication within a relationship. The communication scholar Brant Burleson (2003) considers communication motivation as the desire and intention to achieve a certain goal, whereas communication skill is the ability to achieve the desired goal. Sometimes, when people think a problem is a lack of skills, the problem could well be a lack of motivation.
We also confuse communication behavior with skill. Communication behavior is the nonverbal and verbal activity individuals engage in. Communication is behavior and can be observed, unlike motivations and skills (abilities), which cannot be empirically examined. Whether or not a particular communication behavior is skillful can only be determined if indeed the person achieves the desired goal. This, too, relates to our idea that skill training is not helpful for many relationships. Just because someone has excellent communication skills, it does not necessarily mean the skills will be used to enhance the relationship. If my intent is to hurt or belittle my partner and I have the “good” communication skills to do so and use those skills to cause harm, I am not using my abilities to sustain or build a satisfying relationship. Skillful communicators can inflict much damage on each other and their relationship.
In sum, clearly communication skills are important and are linked to satisfying and stable marriages and intimate relationships. However, we simply cannot assume that poor communication is the problem in bad relationships. Many other problems from many other sources are more likely. If we focus only on improving or increasing communication, we miss the possibility that the problem is lack of motivation or even the inability to use or see positive communication with our partner because of some deeper issue. The deeper issue might be the source of the bad relationship and that bad relationship the source of worse and worse communication. We also cannot assume that a skillful communicator will choose or even have the ability to use those skills in a given relationship. Skillful communicators can intentionally hurt a partner. In addition, sometimes hurt is caused by what we think is supposed to bring us closer (e.g., complete openness and expecting certain types of communication based on gender). The point here is not to devalue communication. The point is to lead us beyond naïve, simplistic, and dysfunctional views of communication that are often propagated in self-help literature and by pop psychology. That being said, of course, some types of communication are generally more or less helpful for relationships.
Communication Processes and Typologies of Relationships
Let us attend directly to specific communication processes that occur between spouses and other intimate partners. Some of these include self-disclosure, conflict, social support, sexual communication, and small talk. I will conclude this section by presenting two typologies of relationships.
Self-disclosure is credited as the ultimate means of relationship development. It has also been considered necessary for relational satisfaction and continuation. Self-disclosure does not always live up to individuals’ expectations for it. Self-disclosure does not equal satisfaction or stability. Sometimes we engage in self-disclosure to hurt the other person. Sometimes that is not our intent; nonetheless, the disclosure is still hurtful. Sometimes we engage in self-disclosure to get something off our chest without thinking about the ramifications of placing this burden of knowledge on the other person. Often times we choose not to self-disclose because we feel that the information is too private or personal or reflects too negatively on ourselves. Some satisfied couples limit their self-disclosure more than other satisfied couples do. Marital workshops wherein individuals are virtually forced to self-disclose have been known to do as much harm for certain marriages as they provide help for others. Within a marriage, an agreement as to the nature of self-disclosure or the need to self-disclose is more significant than the amount.
Social support is often overlooked as a vital aspect of spousal interaction. One scholar defined social support as “responsiveness to another’s needs and more specifically as acts that communicate caring: that validate the other’s worth, feelings, or actions: or that facilitate adaptive coping with problems through the provision of information, assistance, or tangible resources” (Cutrona, 1996, p. 10). Over the course of a relationship, numerous stressors occur at the individual level and at the couple level. Often, we expect our partners to provide emotional or physical support when we face life’s stressors. We might need our spouse to listen to us, to cheer us on, or simply to be there. We also need our spouse to do things for us (instrumental support) or to know that our spouse could if needed.
Problematically, not everything that is offered as social support by one person is accepted as such by the other. A well-intentioned “supportive” statement or action, such as “Let me help you with that,” can be viewed as patronizing. Attempts to cheer the other up, “Come on, it can’t be that bad,” might be seen as not taking the problem seriously. Though vital to strong relationships, offering, accepting, and agreeing as to what constitutes social support can be difficult for some couples.
Sexual communication is related to relational satisfaction. Oddly, in a society seemingly obsessed with sex, communication about sex has not been studied as much as many other communication processes. Often times, individuals seem to be able to engage in sexual activity more readily than they can talk about it. Many types of sexual communication occur. Given concerns with AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, research has concentrated on safer-sex communication among relatively new partners. Within a monogamous marriage or otherwise committed intimate relationship, sexual communication refers to each person’s ability to negotiate sexual activity (initiation and refusal) and to talk about likes and dislikes. Individuals need to know how to initiate sexual interaction in a manner acceptable to their partner. One person’s direct and overt statement of desire might be either welcomed or considered crass and offensive by the other. Sexual initiations can be verbally direct, verbally indirect, physical, nonverbal glances, touching, and the like. Whatever the case, the ability for either partner to initiate and each partner to be able to recognize and appreciate the invitation of the other is essential for sexual satisfaction.
Equally important is the ability to communicate a refusal or rejection of the offer and the recognition of such a refusal by the other. Not all partners want to have sex at the same time, and seldom is the frequency of sexual activity agreed on. Instances of refusal are going to happen. Partners in a solid relationship recognize the refusal and realize that the rejection of a sexual advance is not a rejection of the partner.
Sexual communication does not stop with the ability to negotiate the when or if of sex. In addition, sexual communication entails the couple’s abilities to express likes, dislikes, and desires outside of or during sexual activities. Talking about sex is somewhat of a taboo topic, even within marriage. Individuals frequently find it quite difficult and feel it risky to express likes and dislikes. Furthermore, such expressions must be met with acceptance not defensiveness or feelings of inadequacy. It can be difficult to hear what we might feel is negative feedback about our performance, but not providing (and accepting) such feedback makes it extremely difficult for a couple to continue to develop a satisfactory sex life. Of course, such feedback does not necessarily have to be verbal as long as partners develop some manner of expressing (and accepting) each other’s preferences.
To make talk more comfortable, couples often develop their own “idioms” (nicknames) for the initiation or refusal of sexual activity or various sexual acts. Jointly created “code” can be less threatening, and perhaps even fun, for both members of the couple.
Satisfaction with sexual communication, sexual activities, and the relationship are all associated with each other. Improvement in any one of these areas should result in improvement of the other two.
Perhaps more research has been devoted to conflict within marriages than to any other single communication process. This is because many scholars believe that the way couples manage their disagreements is a major predictor of the success of the relationship. Many different ways of handling conflict can be successful if both partners agree as to how conflict should be managed.
John Gottman (1994b) has gathered the strongest evidence to date for what are clearly positive and negative communication patterns between romantic partners whether married, cohabiting, engaged, homosexual, or heterosexual. He calls the four negative styles of interacting the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” If left unchecked, these will almost certainly trample any relationship. These negative communication tactics are criticisms, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. The next section explains each of these and offers Gottman’s advice for countering or correcting them.
Criticisms focus on the character or nature of an individual. Specific complaints about individual behaviors do not carry the same negative weight. Consider the difference between the messages “You are a slob” and “I wish you would pick up your socks,” or “You are so inconsiderate” and “You didn’t call me when you were going to be late getting home.” Offering a valid complaint about a specific behavior is more likely to lead to less defensiveness and have a higher chance of resolving the issue. Such a complaint is probably more truthful as well.
Among dissatisfied couples, criticisms and even valid complaints are often met with defensiveness leading to a counterattack. For example, I say, “I wish you would pick up your dirty laundry,” and you might respond with “Who are you to talk? You are such a slob.” Satisfied couples are less likely to respond to either a criticism or a complaint with a negative reaction. However, the use of specific complaints instead of general criticisms or character assassination, makes it easier not be negative in return.
When offered a complaint, our best course of action is to stay focused on the specific complaint and consider whether the complaint is valid rather than to become defensive. Do you leave your socks on the floor? Do you fail to call? Take responsibility for your role and make amends rather than engaging in a counterattack of your own. Using complaints instead of criticisms does not give us a license to hurl numerous complaints at our partners. No matter how gently worded, an abundance of even legitimate complaints about another’s actions will eventually take its toll. Gottman has proposed that every negative comment within a relationship has to be offset by at least five to eight positive ones.
Contempt is pure poison. Contempt belittles the other person. It is shown through behaviors such as rolling one’s eyes or sneering, offering sarcastic comments, hurtful humor, mocking, name-calling, and the like. Such behavior shows no respect and no willingness to listen or understand. Contempt ultimately indicates disgust with the other person. Contemptuous remarks lead to further contempt or criticisms and do nothing to resolve any issues. It should go without saying that the use of contemptuous behaviors is unhealthy.
Defensiveness often comes on the heels of criticism and contempt. When it comes to conflict, it seems that many people believe that the best defense is a good offense. Rather than responding appropriately, individuals defend themselves by being critical, contemptuous, or failing to take responsibility for their own actions.
Most individuals tend to reciprocate behavior. In other words, they tend to give back what they are given. This is truest for unhappy couples. Satisfied and dissatisfied couples are likely to return a positive remark with a positive remark. A major difference between satisfied and dissatisfied couples emerges when a negative comment is offered. Only individuals in a satisfied partnership seem to be capable of meeting a negative remark (e.g., a criticism) without becoming defensive. Satisfied couples are able to stop a negative spiral rather than fuel it.
Stonewalling shuts the other person out. It sometimes occurs later in a relationship than the other behaviors. It might develop after several months or years of criticism, contempt, or defensiveness. Stonewalling can involve physically leaving the room or home with no explanation, simply storming out or walking away. Stonewalling can also occur in the other’s presence through the silent treatment.
Sometimes when an issue becomes too heated or feelings are being hurt, a timeout can be helpful. There is a vast difference between informing the other you are too upset to talk right now, that you need to take a walk and calm down, compared with simply storming out and slamming the door or remaining an impassive stone.
Chronic use of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling indicates little concern for what the other has to say. Though such negative communication is most readily evidenced in conflict situations, the same types of negative communication can also occur during nonconflict situations. Couples who use such communication tactics will likely end their relationships. Of course, if partners change the way they interact, the relationship prognosis changes.
We seem to be preoccupied with examining conflict and self-disclosure. However, most couples spend much more of their talk time in rather routine or mundane conversations. Moreover, such mundane conversation is vital. Indeed, the relational scholar Steve Duck (1995) argues that such talk is the stuff of which relationships are made. The day-to-day talk about the ordinary creates, sustains, and re-creates the relationship between people. According to Duck, relationships are never stagnant. They are always changing; they are “unfinished business.” Most scholars do share the view that relationships are constantly evolving. Duck argues that this occurs through the most mundane of discourse. Through such talk we reveal who we are, what we think, and what we think about our relationship, and we learn such things about our partner. In satisfactory relationships, most of our conversation with our partners is likely both mundane and satisfying. Similarly, other scholars have noted that much of our talk involves joking around, gossiping, catching up, covering logistics, and other such types of talk considered to be extremely ordinary.
Communicating to Maintain Relationships
Though the study of marital satisfaction and stability is long-standing, the area of research labeled relationship maintenance is comparatively new. The study of relationship maintenance has largely been concerned with the communication behaviors associated with relational stability, satisfaction, or other desired relational qualities, such as trust and commitment. Of course, scholars define maintenance in slightly different ways. Similarly, various scholars have identified several means of communication linked to relational stability and quality. Most, if not all, of the communication behaviors discussed earlier could be considered maintenance behaviors. The broad study of relationship maintenance is much more recent than research on any one particular communication process, such as conflict or self-disclosure. The study of relationship maintenance attempts to tie these separate communication processes together and go beyond them. As a whole, relationship maintenance research considers not only the communicative processes between the members of the couple but also the role of social networks (e.g., family and friends) and perceptions and cognitions in maintaining relationships. For example, spouses’ perceptions of their partners’ use of maintenance behaviors (e.g., being positive) is related to their own satisfaction. Also, merely thinking about fond memories of your partner is related to maintenance.
Different types of couples use different types of maintenance behaviors. Maintenance behaviors also vary depending on the current state of the relationship. For example, a newly dating couple might use more openness, whereas a married couple of several years is likely to offer more reassurances. Maintenance activities are also varied based on a couple’s circumstances. Couples in long-distance relationships must rely more on mediated means (e.g., telephone, e-mail) than those who are close. Cognitions (e.g., remembering past interactions and looking forward to future ones) appear to be a maintenance mechanism for couples who are physically away from each other. Furthermore, different maintenance behaviors are linked to differing relational characteristics. Assurances are strongly related to commitment, whereas being positive is strongly related to liking.
Though this brief presentation barely scratches the surface of relationship maintenance, it emphasizes the idea that there is no one type of communication that is right for differing types of relationships or even different points in time for the same relationship. Furthermore, research on maintenance reminds us that communication is not the only means of creating or solving problems in relationships. Our networks and our thoughts play a part. Many scholars who study relationship maintenance appear to view successful maintenance as the result of the maintenance activities. However, returning to our question of the chicken and the egg, it is not clear whether maintenance behaviors lead to positive relationships or whether they are reflections of positive relationships. In all probability, they are both. Such a comprehensive approach to relational success is likely to continue to help scholars further understand the connections between communication and successful relationships in the hope that advice that is more specific can be offered to couples.
Research has shown there is no one right way to communicate or one good type of relationship. Different couples use different styles of communication and nevertheless are satisfied. Evidence comes from some researchers, such as Mary Anne Fitzpatrick and John Gottman, who have identified general types of married and other intimate couples.
Mary Anne Fitzpatrick’s (1988) typology of couples is based on their patterns of communication and their ideologies about marriage. She identifies three primary types of couples, which she calls traditional, independent, and separate. Traditional couples value interdependence over autonomy. They hold conventional views of marriage. For example, they tend to follow traditional gender roles and are more likely to see the man as the head of the family. They are intertwined and share time, space, and leisure activities together. They do not engage in frequent conflict or self-disclosure in many arenas, but they do engage in conflict and self-disclosure over issues they believe to be important.
Independent couples place importance on both connection and individuality. They have less conventional values about marriage. For example, they do not necessarily follow traditional gender roles, and they engage in more negotiation about who does what within the marriage. They are more likely than traditionals to participate in separate leisure activities and to share less time together. Still, they are interdependent. They engage in high levels of self-disclosure and conflict over both relatively minor and major issues.
Separate couples hold conventional beliefs about marriage although they place little importance on interdependence. These couples spend less time together than either of the previously discussed couple types. They tend to avoid both self-disclosure and conflict.
Research indicates that about 60% of couples fall into one of these three types. All three of these can have satisfying and stable relationships. This leaves 40% of couples where the partners are of two different types. The probability of satisfaction is higher for individuals who share the same orientation than for those in mixed relationships.
Another typology of couples was developed by John Gottman (1994b). Gottman is interested in identifying satisfying and stable couples primarily based on how they handle conflict. He classified couples into one of five types, three of which are functional, whereas the other two are likely to terminate their relationships. The three stable types are the avoiders, volatile couples, and validators.
First are the avoiders. As their name suggests, these couples attempt to avoid conflict. They are more likely to agree to disagree than to confront the issue. They tend to minimize the importance of an issue, nevertheless they do accept the other person and listen to the other person’s views. Volatile couples privilege independence. They seem to thrive on conflict and willingly engage in conflict. They are passionate and offer a great deal of both positive and negative affect. Finally, some couples are validators. These couples avoid many arguments except over issues they consider vital. During interaction, there is a great deal of verbal and nonverbal acknowledgment, indicating that each is paying attention and wants to hear the other.
Gottman has identified two additional couple types as dysfunctional and likely to end their relationships: the hostile-engaged and the hostile-detached. The hostile-engaged couple exhibits a pattern of complaining and criticizing by one partner followed by defensiveness by the other. They seem to have little understanding of each other’s points of view. The hostile-detached couple live relatively detached and separate lives. When they do encounter conflict, it is generally short and intense and consists of attacking and defensiveness, disinterest, or contempt.
When invited to write this chapter, I was asked to suggest how the knowledge included could help students with their own communication. In this conclusion, I offer some suggestions.
The generalities offered must be read with caution; it is important to remember that it is impossible to define “good” communication. One-size-fits-all prescriptions for good communication simply do not exist as no two relationships are the same. Though there are clearly some wrong ways to communicate, there is no one right way to communicate. That said, I attempt to offer general but, nonetheless, what I believe to be worthy pieces of advice.
First, I would challenge you to examine your beliefs about relationships, including those that are potentially dysfunctional. Do you strongly hold many dysfunctional views? Maybe, as an adult, it is time to revisit your views of relationships.
Similarly, think about what you consider good communication. Not everyone wants the same type of communication. Some of us thrive on conflict and disclosure and some of us prefer to avoid conflict and keep things more to ourselves. Some people believe that all issues and irritations have to be aired to have a true connection; others are quite happy with agreeing to disagree. The probability of a successful relationship increases when partners are similar not only in their values and beliefs but also in their communication preferences. Do not assume that your relationship is in trouble just because your partner seems to need to argue about everything. Similarly, do not assume that your partner does not want to be close to you just because she or he does not disclose as much private information as you might like. Before making a commitment, pay attention to your similarities and differences in communication preferences. A conflict avoider and a conflict engager will face the difficulty of not only resolving the issue but also resolving whether to engage in conflict. Last, within the realms of both sexual communication and social support, there is a need to recognize how sensitive and tricky negotiating the same meanings can be. It can require work to find ways of talking about sexual activity in a manner that is comfortable for both your and your partner or being able to offer support in a way that is not viewed as patronizing.
Next, I raise two issues that have not been addressed previously in this chapter. Little has been directly stated about amount or timing. I have mentioned that it is best if people agree on the amount of conflict or disclosure. There are other ways amount should be considered. For example, we generally do want positivity and reassurances from our partner, yet someone who is constantly positive will probably get on our nerves. Perhaps we begin to wonder what is wrong, if our partner verbally reassures us of their love for us too many times a day. There might be a point at which we receive too much “good” communication.
The setting and the timing also factor into consideration. When and where one chooses to engage in conflict or self-disclosure, to offer social support, or even to attempt small talk can have major ramifications. Discussion of the same issue in private versus in front of friends or family members will affect the conversation. Or what might be taken as supportive communication or appropriate sexual communication in private might cause you to feel uncomfortable in public.
Raising an issue you desire to discuss when your partner is exhausted or stressed does not provide a great chance for either of you to use your best communication skills and successfully address the issue. Even small talk can be ill timed. It is not wise to attempt to engage in pillow talk as your partner is just on the edge of sleep. Your partner might not desire to be roused just to talk, and you might feel ignored.
We might not think about the where and when to engage in different types of talk with our partner, but a little consideration of such factors can go a long way toward setting up a situation that more readily lends itself to good communication. Some of us are rather selfish about our needs and want to talk about “it” (whatever “it” is) right then and there, without considering our partner’s state or desire. We need to monitor our partner, and ourselves, and ask if this is indeed the right time or place. When either partner is overly exhausted, stressed, or emotional, even the best communicators are less likely to be motivated, or able, to use those skills in a positive manner.
Finally, I close with pieces of advice that I offer with the most confidence. Do not automatically assume that communication is the problem in a relationship; keep an eye out for the real issue. Keep in mind that problematic relationships cause problematic communication as well as result from problematic communication. As most problems are not communication problems, decide if the area of discontent is something you can live with or be willing to dig deep into real issues. If the problem is your communication, decide to work actively on your communication skills
Do not reciprocate negative behaviors. Remember that most of us, including marital and other intimate partners, tend to give back what we are given. In a healthy relationship, partners are better able to counter negative behaviors with positive ones. Responding to a negative remark with a positive one can turn a downward spiral back upward.
Pay as much attention to your perceptions and attitudes about your partner and your relationship as to your communication within the relationship. If you are in a satisfying relationship, keep thinking positively about your partner and your relationship. Feed those fond feelings. If in a troubled relationship, keep in mind that you might see negative communication when it is not there and that you are probably not motivated to use your best communication skills either. Rediscover the person you fell in love with and the great relationship you used to have. Maintaining a positive relationship or turning a distressed relationship back into a positive one, could just lead to good communication.