Communication in relationships

Communication plays an important role in all types of relationships. It plays a role in what attracts us to someone, how we maintain a relationship and is often cited as one of the key reasons that a relationship may change over time or even fall apart. Communication is not just what we say, but how we say it.

Bradbury and Fincham (1990) carried out a meta-analysis of studies on couples and how they communicated. The researchers found that couples that are in happy relationships engage in relationship enhancing patterns when there is disagreement - that is, they don't blame their partner or assume that the partner did things "on purpose." Negative behaviours are attributed to situational factors. Unhappy couples blame their partners for what happens and don't give them credit for positive events. He called this a distress-maintaining pattern of behaviour.

It seems that how we communicate about problems in our relationships, and how we attribute blame for negative behaviour, could determine whether a relationship will end. It is important, however, to consider if it is the quality of the relationship that leads to negative communication or the attributional style that leads to the breakdown of a relationship.  In 1993, the researchers carried out a twelve-month prospective study to see the role of communication styles on the success of a relationship. They found that when couples engaged in relationship enhancing patterns at the beginning of the study, it was a good predictor of marital satisfaction at the end of the study.  However, the level of satisfaction with the relationship at the beginning of the study did not predict whether the couple would engage in relationship enhancing or distress-maintaining patterns of communication at the end of the study. This could indicate that it is the kinds of attributions that influence the behaviour of couples rather than the other way round.

Of course, there may be many other reasons for a relationship to succeed or fail. Arguing that it all comes down to attributional styles may be a bit reductionist. There is also the problem that in highly dysfunctional relationships - for example, cases of domestic violence - a pattern of seeing the negative behaviours of a partner as only situational and not potentially dispositional can lead to excusing violent behaviours.

Social Penetration Theory (Altman & Taylor, 1973) argues that close relationships are formed by a process of gradual self-disclosure - that is, sharing personal things about yourself to someone that you trust. The researchers argue that self-disclosure leads to self-validation. They argue that disclosure is part of the cost-benefit analysis that takes place in any relationship. As I disclose information about myself, if I feel validated, then I feel that the relationship has value. If I disclose and feel that my potential partner is critical or disinterested, then I see a cost to disclosure and back away from the relationship.

Social Penetration Theory

Altman & Taylor argue that there are different levels of disclosure.

  1. The Orientation Stage: Often referred to as "small talk." Simple information about oneself without revealing anything that would reveal vulnerability. For example, I am American. I live in Prague. I am a student. There is low risk at this level of communication.
  2. The Exploratory Stage: One starts to reveal more about one's personal feelings and opinions - but still on rather "safe" topics. This may be one's thoughts on the current government, what we like and don't like about our jobs, thoughts on the future. This is the stage at which many friendships stay.
  3. The Affective Stage: Beginning to share information of a private/personal nature. Often this stage also involves intimate physical relations.
  4. The Stable Stage: One feels that they can be honest and open with a partner. Trust is strongly developed. One can predict the emotional reactions of the other person.

    Can self-disclosure be related to attraction? A meta-analysis of self-disclosure studies by Collins & Miller (1994) found that people who disclose intimate information about themselves are more liked than people who don’t. The researchers also found that people tend to disclose more personal information to those that they like.  Finally, if people disclose information to someone, they tend to like the person more. This clearly indicates that disclosure could be an important factor in establishing and maintaining a relationship.

    There are several criticisms of this theory. First, it is difficult to determine a cause and effect relationship between disclosure and the health of a relationship. It appears to be more likely that disclosure is a result of a healthy relationship, rather than a cause of one. In addition, a large amount of the research on this topic has been conducted on Western women. This means that there is s significant sampling bias. Men and women appear to have different patterns of disclosure, so the theory may be overly simplistic. Finally, as with all theories about relationships, using only this one argument to explain the health of a relationship is reductionist.

    ATL: Thinking critically

    How do you think that the Internet affects the way that we communicate with each other? And how does this affect relationships? Here is a video by psychologist Dan Ariely. Why does he think that online dating is so unsatisfactory for so many people? How does this link to the theories that are outlined above?

    Furthering our knowledge

    Here is a good podcast on a communication phenomenon known as switch-tracking.  How does this affect how we solve problems in relationships?

    As you will see in the next section, poor communication can have a negative effect on a relationship.

    Checking for understanding

    Which of the following statements would be considered a "relationship enhancing pattern" of communication?

    A relationship enhancing pattern of communication attributes success to dispositional or internal factors - and failure to situational factors.  A distress-maintaining pattern does the opposite, attributing success to luck or the situation and negative behaviour to unchanging, internal dispositions of the partner.

    A study that looks at communication at the beginning of a relationship to determine its effect over time - and then measures the health of the relationships after several years, is what type of study?


    One of the limitations of Altman & Taylor's Social Penetration Theory is that we cannot determine if a good relationship leads to more disclosure or whether more disclosure leads to a good relationship.  What is the name given to this problem?


    Which of the following is a limitation of a meta-analysis?

    Since the researcher chooses which studies to include in a meta-analysis, there is a high risk of researcher bias.

    What is the key characteristic of the communication strategy known as switch-tracking?

    Switch tracking is a way that a partner tries to avoid a topic that is being brought up and discuss a topic that they would like to discuss instead.  For example, partner 1 might say, "I was really frustrated last night when we had our friends over; I felt like you were putting me down." Partner 2 replies: "Yes, I also feel really stressed right now.  Maybe we should think about going on vacation." Partner 2 attempts to change the topic with the hope of avoiding a stressful conversation; Partner 1, however, will feel that his or her feelings are not being honored and may stop disclosing this type of information to his/her partner.


    Total Score:

    Why relationships end

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    Comments 7

    Charlotte Cachia 20 March 2018 - 15:17

    Dear John,
    Could students reuse the 'communication' content about social penetration theory and attributions, to explain why relationships may end?
    Attributions ---> blaming your partner's negative behaviour on their dispositional will put a strain on the relationship.
    Self-disclosure --> If I disclose and feel that my potential partner is critical or disinterested, then I see a cost to disclosure and back away from the relationship.
    Thank you,

    John Crane 21 March 2018 - 05:25

    Dear Charlotte,

    Absolutely. That is exactly what I tell my own students to do as they prepare for the exam.

    Elizabeth Elwell 20 August 2018 - 17:28

    Dear John,
    Thank you again for your incredible support. The new guide states that each of the relationships topics should use the learning from the biological, cognitive and sociocultural approaches to behaviour where appropriate.
    With the communication topic I find it difficult to make links to the biological approach. Would it be likely that a question would require material which is both biological and about communication?
    Many thanks, Lizzie.

    John Crane 21 August 2018 - 05:43

    Dear Lizzie

    Very unlikely. As you say, the guide says "where appropriate." It is also unclear whether the approaches will be asked only at the topic level (as workshop leaders were told) or specific to the content column (as is indicated in the specimen paper).

    Maria Fotinopoulou 9 September 2018 - 15:05

    Hi John!
    I was wondering if we have clarification on this point now..Are the Qs going to be formed on topic level or content column too in Paper 2.
    I am assuming that bio and communcation cannot be combined..but how would a question on sociocultural factors and communication be asked? and if asked how do you think it can be answered?

    John Crane 10 September 2018 - 05:19

    Dear Maria

    In the clarification on MYIB, it says that paper 2 questions may combine columns 1 and 3. So, they can only combine the approaches with the topic, not with specific content.

    Maria Fotinopoulou 10 September 2018 - 09:46

    thank you John! all this information and changes I lost it at some point! Thanks again!