Communication Tied To Happy Marriage, But It's Complicated

Previous studies have emphasized communication — or the lack thereof — as a predictor of a happy marriage and even divorce. In a new study, researchers at the University of Georgia (UGA) decided to investigate the specific relationship between communication practices and marital satisfaction.

In other words, is communication the cause of a happy partnership or is it a consequence of being satisfied? Or are they simply correlated?

Their findings were quite complex. The correlational ties between satisfaction and communication were strong.

However, in the majority of cases, communication did not necessarily predict satisfaction, nor did satisfaction predict communication. But when the two were linked, marital satisfaction seemed to be the driving force, leading to better communication, rather than communication leading to marital satisfaction.

“It’s absolutely right to say more satisfied couples do communicate more positively, as well as to say couples who communicate better on average are more satisfied,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Justin Lavner, an assistant professor in UGA’s clinical psychology program in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

“But it gives us a lot more pause to say that one caused the other one, which is really important. I think what this leaves us wondering is what are some of the other factors that matter for couples’ relationships and how these factors predict how couples do over time.”

The three-year study involved more than 400 low-income newlywed couples in Los Angeles who were assessed four different times.

The authors chose to look at couples with lower incomes because of the unique stressors present in these households. Also, the first few years of marriage are usually a high-stress transition period for couples, with a high risk of divorce, Lavner said. Financial worries further compound the already stressful newlywed period.

At each meeting, conducted in their homes, participants completed three different tasks to gauge their communication skills. These tasks were developed to determine whether the couple used positive, negative or effective communication.Then each couple filled out a report designed to measure marital satisfaction.

“In general, the correlational findings were pretty strong, showing — as we kind of expect — the more satisfied you are, basically, the better you communicate with your spouse,” Lavner said. “What those results showed was that couples who were more satisfied also demonstrated higher levels of positivity, lower levels of negativity and more effectiveness.”

The researchers were surprised, however, to see that there wasn’t a strong causal link showing that good communication caused satisfaction, Lavner said.

There was some evidence of communication being a predictor of satisfaction, but it wasn’t “as strong as it should have been given how central that assumption is in theory as well as practice. Overall, the pattern was one that it wasn’t as robust as theory would lead us to believe,” Lavner said.

Indeed, in the majority of cases, communication did not predict satisfaction, nor did satisfaction predict communication, Lavner said.

“It was more common for satisfaction to predict communication than the reverse,” he said. “I think the other thing that was surprising is that when one effect was stronger than the other, satisfaction was a stronger predictor of communication. These links have not been talked about as much in the literature; we have focused on communication predicting satisfaction instead.”

The findings are published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Source: University of Georgia