Marital communication refers to the communication and social interaction that transpire between spouses. However, the study of marital communication is often informed by and extended to a range of couples in a “marriage-like” setting such as cohabiting and same-sex couples. In most industrialized societies as many as 90 percent of the population marry, and in many of these societies, up to 50 percent divorce. Many people feel that communication is the key to marital success, and therefore interest in marital communication is often undertaken to discover why some marriages fail and how to help couples maintain a happy and successful marriage.
Theories On Marital Communication
There are several prominent theoretical viewpoints that guide the study of marital communication. Behavioral theories tend to focus on communication behaviors emitted by husbands and wives that are either rewarding or aversive. Behavioral theorists are also interested in how spouses might reward or punish each other for enacting certain communication behaviors. For example, if one spouse becomes verbally aggressive and the other responds by being conciliatory and compliant, a behavioral theorist would observe that the aggressive spouse’s aversive behavior was rewarded by the other and this in turn should prompt more verbal aggression in the future. Behavioral theorists will thus often rely on behavioral observation (also known as behavioral assessment or interaction analysis) as their primary methodological tool. Most behavioral observation is done in a laboratory setting where couples are instructed to engage in a conversation that is recorded and later analyzed.
Cognitive theories of marital interaction hypothesize that people hold certain beliefs and exhibit distinguishing perceptual and interpretive patterns that have a strong impact on the couple’s communication patterns and ultimately on the quality of their marriage. A robust finding from this research tradition is that distressed couples often exhibit maladaptive attributional patterns in response to each other’s behavior. That is, distressed couples tend to dismiss their partner’s positive behaviors to situational and transitory factors (e.g., “you just told me that you loved me because you want something from me”) and make stable and internal attributions for their partner’s negative behaviors (e.g., “you won’t agree with me on this point because you are a stubborn jerk”). Research guided by cognitive models of marital interaction often uses self-report measures to assess partners’ attributions for each other’s behaviors in real or imagined social interactions.
Family systems theorists believe that marital communication behavior can only be understood by analyzing the larger interpersonal and social context in which it occurs. Systems theorists assume that the communication behavior of spouses is interdependent and affected by mutual influence processes. They also assume that the whole of a marital relationship is more than just the sum of its parts. This is the basis for the concept of emergent properties. This implies that the quality of a marital relationship emerges from the nature of the couple’s communications, which amount to something more than the mere sum of all their messages. In research settings, systems theorists tend to rely on a combination of self-report and behavioral observation techniques, sometimes in the home setting and with other family members such as children present.
Types Of Communication Behaviors
Researchers have been able to identify distinct types of marriages on the basis of couples’ communication behaviors, and these different marital types all have comparable success rates. Fitzpatrick’s (1988) couple typology describes three distinct types of marriages. Traditional couples hold conventional values toward their marriage, are interdependent, and are willing to engage in conflict when serious issues emerge. In contrast, independent couples are unconventional in their marital ideology, somewhat interdependent, and generally unrestrained in their conflict engagement. Finally, separate couples are the most autonomous and least likely to engage in conflict, while also holding somewhat conventional values. Of the three, separates are the least expressive. Gottman (1994) presented findings on a comparable typology of marriages, based largely on the nature of couples’ conflicts. Validators tend to be mostly positive during their conflicts, showing mutual respect and validation of their partner’s emotions and perspective. Volatile couples tend to be more explosive and argumentative, as they pursue marital conflicts with vigor while also expressing substantial positivity. In sharp contrast, avoiders prefer to minimize their disagreements and avoid discussing them altogether. Gottman observed obvious connections between his marital typology and that of Fitzpatrick (i.e., traditionals = validators, independents = volatiles, and separates = avoiders).
Like all other forms of interpersonal communication, marital communication is multidimensional. Perhaps the most obvious dimension of marital communication is the content of the talk exchanged between spouses. There are a number of verbal behaviors, such as complaining, validation, and criticizing, that have proven to be remarkably consequential for spouses’ satisfaction with their marriage.
Another important dimension of marital communication is the couple’s nonverbal behaviors. How something is said is often more consequential for spouses than exactly what is said. Nonverbal behaviors such as eye contact, vocal tone, and facial expression can be powerful indicators of sarcasm, warmth, concern, or anger. These expressions appear to be a better indicator of couples’ adjustment than the actual content of their speech.
The expression of affect or emotion between spouses also plays a vital role in marital communication. Communications that have a negative emotional tone reflective of anger, sadness, or anxiety are particularly common among distressed couples. Sentiment override occurs when a spouse has a particularly dominant emotional reaction to his or her partner’s behavior, regardless of the actual content of that behavior. For example, distressed spouses will often respond negatively to virtually any communication from their partner, even those that appear to have an objectively positive tone.
The cognitive dimension of marital communication refers to how couples plan their own messages as well as how they interpret and explain the behavior of their partner. The attributions that spouses make for each other’s communication can exert a strong influence on marital satisfaction, particularly when spouses make maladaptive attributions for their partner’s negative communication behaviors (Johnson et al. 2001).
Finally, researchers are beginning to document important physiological phenomena that occur during marital communication that are predictive of positive and negative marital outcomes. During marital conflict, some people become overwhelmed by arousal and emotion and are unable to effectively cope with this uncontrolled acceleration of arousal. This phenomenon is known as flooding and it portends a troubled future for the marriage. Conversely, if spouses are able to sooth their own or their partner’s arousal during heated conflicts, they are more likely to experience positive marital outcomes. Chronic arguing with a spouse or feeling misunderstood by a spouse appears to put a great deal of wear and tear on the nervous system. This stress on the nervous system, known as allostatic load, appears to predispose people to a number of serious health conditions such as lowered immunological fitness and poor cardiac functioning.
Conflict In Marital Communication
The study of conflict has a privileged status among many marital communication researchers because of the general belief that effective conflict management is vital to marital success and that excessive conflict is destructive to marriage. For this reason, much of what is known about marital communication comes from studies of conflict and problem-solving interactions. However, in many marriages conflict is not a very frequent occurrence. Furthermore, many marriages (e.g., volatile or independent) seem to function quite well despite relatively high levels of conflict. It is not conflict per se that is harmful to marital satisfaction, but how conflict is handled.
One particularly damaging pattern of marital communication is known as demand– withdrawal. This occurs when one spouse (the demander) presents a complaint or criticism to the other (the withdrawer) who becomes defensive and avoids discussion of the topic. The demand–withdrawal pattern of marital communication is reliably associated with marital dissatisfaction. Naturally, this pattern of communication makes it difficult for spouses to truly resolve their differences.
In distressed marriages, the expression of negative affect in one spouse often prompts a comparable expression of negative affect from the other. This phenomenon is known as negative affect reciprocity. One example of this is when couples engage in cross complaining, whereby one spouse presents a complaint (e.g, “You don’t ever take me out to dinner anymore”) and the other spouse responds with a complaint of his or her own (e.g., “Well you can’t ever save up enough money so we can afford to go out”). As spouses exchange criticism after criticism, negative emotions escalate and the content of the behavior associated with the criticism is never actually addressed. Instead, the spouses essentially move on to another topic. Satisfied spouses are able to calm their partner and to deflect negative affect by showing support, agreement, and validation, and sometimes even injecting humor into their problem-solving discussions.
Extensive research on married couples’ conflict interactions has revealed an important cascade of communication behaviors that are highly predictive of later divorce. A cascade is a sequence of events in which enactment of one stage of the cascade is associated with a very high probability of progressing to the next stage with little possibility of altering the sequence. Couples headed for divorce tend to exhibit a cascade of noxious communication behaviors that Gottman (1994) characterizes as “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
The cascade starts with a behavior Gottman calls complain/criticize. This is the commingling of a complaint or expression of dissatisfaction with criticism of the partner. This criticism often takes the form of blaming statements with character attacks expressed in terms such as “you always” and “you never.” The next step in the behavioral cascade is defensiveness. When people get defensive in marital interactions they try to protect themselves from criticism and avoid blame by denying any responsibility for wrongdoing. When spouses refuse to accept responsibility for any wrongdoing, conflicts remain unresolved. The third link in this chain of corrosive communication behaviors is contempt. When people express contempt, they mock or insult their partner. Their communication sends the message “you are stupid” or “you are incompetent.” Contempt is also communicated nonverbally through a particular facial expression that involves pulling back one corner of the mouth and perhaps rolling the eyes. The last of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is stonewalling. When people engage in stonewalling, they show no signs of receiving messages from their partner. Their facial expressions are often blank and they may not even make eye contact with their spouse. Often, stonewalling is a manifestation of emotional divestment from the marriage. People stonewall when they no longer care enough about the relationship to put forth the effort to engage in conflict.
Although marital communication research has identified a number of negative communication behaviors that are deleterious to marriage, certain positively toned behaviors can contribute to marital success. One is spousal support. Happily married couples will often exchange messages that show support, acceptance, and validation toward their partner – even during conflicts. Such expressions make partners feel valued and cared for, which has obvious benefits for marriage. Also, well-adjusted spouses tend to make repair attempts during their conflict interactions. Repair attempts involve efforts to tone down negativity during heated discussions by accepting responsibility, agreeing with a partner’s appraisal (e.g., “OK, you’ve got a point there”), and even using humor, or making statements that provide a temporary diversion from the conflict.
- Fincham, F. D. (2004). Communication in marriage. In A. L. Vangelisti (ed.), Handbook of family communication. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 83–103.
- Fitzpatrick, M. A. (1988). Between husbands and wives. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce: The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Johnson, M. D., Karney, B. R., Rogge, R., & Bradbury, T. N. (2001). The role of marital behavior in the longitudinal associations between attributions and marital quality. In V. Manusov & J. H. Harvey (eds.), Attribution, communication behavior, and close relationships. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 173–192.
- Segrin, C., & Flora, J. (2005). Family communication. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.