Campus News

Psychology researcher challenges theory that good communication leads to marital satisfaction

One of the top reasons couples seek counseling is communication issues, so does better communication predict a more satisfying relationship?

The answer may not be that simple, according to a study by UGA’s psychology department published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

“Although communication and satisfaction were correlated, communication wasn’t a good guide for determining partners’ satisfaction with their relationships over time,” said the study’s lead author Justin Lavner, an assistant professor in UGA’s clinical psychology program in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

Although communication practices could predict satisfaction to some extent for some couples, the lack of a definitive causal relationship calls for additional attention to other factors that influence marital satisfaction, such as environmental stressors, what ­activities and interactions a couple has, and the personality traits of the individual partners.

Previous research and theories emphasized communication—or the lack thereof—as a predictor of marital satisfaction and even divorce. Lavner and his co-authors decided to look at whether communication was really a cause or if communication was a consequence of being satisfied, or was simply connected to it instead.

More than 400 low-income newlywed couples in Los Angeles participated in the three-year study, during which they were assessed four times. At each meeting, conducted in a couple’s home, participants would first complete three different tasks to gauge communication and then fill out a report on their satisfaction with their marriage.

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

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

“It was more common for satisfaction to predict communication than the reverse,” Lavner said. “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.”