Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Does Couples' Communication Predict Marital Satisfaction, or Does Marital Satisfaction Predict Communication?

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Does Couples' Communication Predict Marital Satisfaction, or Does Marital Satisfaction Predict Communication?

Article excerpt

Communication occupies a central role in models of relationship deterioration, as intimate bonds are believed to remain strong to the extent that partners respond with sensitivity to one another (e.g., Reis & Patrick, 1996). Nonetheless, evidence substantiating the critical importance of communication comes almost exclusively from cross-sectional studies (Woodin, 2011) and from longitudinal studies in which communication observed at one time point is used to predict later marital satisfaction (Karney & Bradbury, 1995). If changes in communication are truly the mechanism by which satisfaction changes, however, longitudinal data on communication behaviors are needed to show that communication consistently predicts changes in satisfaction over time. Moreover, in the absence of such data, cause and effect cannot be disentangled: Actual effects of communication on later satisfaction might be overstated if earlier assessments of satisfaction are generating variability in later communication. In the current study we addressed this gap by using four waves of observed communication and self-reported satisfaction data from a sample of newlywed couples to examine whether communication predicts changes in satisfaction and whether satisfaction predicts changes in communication.


Guided by social exchange theory, early approaches argued that happy marriages could be distinguished from unhappy marriages by the ratio of positive to negative behavior in the relationship (Jacobson & Margolin, 1979). Since then, cross-sectional studies have consistently indicated that distressed couples display more negative communication behaviors and fewer positive communication behaviors during conflict resolution tasks than relatively satisfied couples (Bradbury & Karney, 2013). Behavioral theory extended these findings to posit that marital distress is a consequence of poor communication, arguing that "distress results from couples' aversive and ineffectual response to conflict" (Koerner & Jacobson, 1994, p. 208).

Evidence for the notion that poor communication predicts couple outcomes is mixed. Consistent with the aforementioned pattern, low levels of positive affect and high levels of negative skills predict steeper declines in marital satisfaction over time (Johnson et al., 2005), negative behaviors observed at baseline distinguish between satisfied and dissatisfied intact couples at 10-year follow-up (Kiecolt-Glaser, Bane, Glaser, & Malarkey, 2003), and couples who express more negativity in the first 2 years of marriage report greater unhappiness in their marriages after more than a decade compared to couples who are more positive early on (Huston, Caughlin, Houts, Smith, & George, 2001). However, other studies are inconsistent with this general pattern, revealing counterintuitive associations between negative communication and changes in satisfaction. Husbands' negativity has been shown to predict a positive change in wives' satisfaction 1 year later, for example, and is unrelated to their own satisfaction (Heavey, Layne, & Christensen, 1993); more negative communication predicts slower, not faster, declines in satisfaction (Karney & Bradbury, 1997); and few links are found between positive communication and satisfaction trajectories (e.g., Markman, Rhoades, Stanley, Ragan, & Whitton, 2010).

Considering Bidirectional Linkages

These findings pose a critical challenge for behavioral theories: If poor communication reliably distinguishes between distressed and nondistressed couples in the cross section (Woodin, 2011), how is it that poor communication does not consistently predict relationship distress? One possibility is that communication and satisfaction are correlated concurrently not because communication predicts satisfaction but because satisfaction predicts communication. This idea is consistent with long-standing evidence from the social psychological literature that attitudes guide behavior (e. …

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