Is Your Communication Style Impacting your Relationship?

By Louis H. Primavera, Ph.D. and Rob Pascale, Ph.D.

March 29, 2016

However, for some couples, the specific things they argue about can be less important than the way they act and talk to each other. The impact of how we express ourselves is so powerful that it’s extremely difficult for unhappy couples to improve their relationship without changing their communication styles. It is in fact one of the primary areas therapists will focus on when treating marriages that have chronic problems. 

The Benefits of a Positive Communication Style

Broadly speaking, communication styles are either positive or negative. Positive styles allow couples to find solutions to their problems, but they can also have other benefits for the marriage. When the communication style is positive, we believe our partners are approachable and care about our issues, and we don’t have to avoid conflicts because we believe they’re constructive. When a disagreement ends, emotions de-escalate and partners come to an understanding with which they both can live. They’re likely to feel they’ve accomplished something together and that gives them a reason to feel good about their relationship. On the opposite side, negative styles do not yield solutions. Instead, they often cause an argument to escalate and get out of control. Both partners usually feel less satisfied after an argument because they haven’t made any progress, and so they feel more distanced from each other.

The specific words we use when we argue are one way to determine whether our communication styles are positive or negative. Words are a measurable quantity, and so it is possible to identify a couple’s communication style by counting the number of positive and negative messages partners send to each other. Couples in good relationships have as many as five times more positive to negative comments passed back and forth, and negative comments will usually be counter-balanced by jokes, laughter, and other forms of positive interaction. In contrast, the ratio of negative to positive messages may be as high as three to one in favor of the negative among couples who have ineffective styles.

Keep Track of Your Positive to Negative Word Count

We should point out that a positive to negative word count is not only indicative of communication style. It can also be used as a measure of a marriage’s overall quality. In fact, there is evidence that couples who have a highly negative pattern run the risk of ending up divorced. It is for this reason that some therapists suggest that couples keep a tally of their messages to find out if they contain mostly positive or mostly hurtful and antagonistic messages.

Of course, we’re not suggesting that any expression of negativity is dangerous. Each of us will express some aggression or hostility during a fight because we can’t always control our emotions. Most marriages can withstand that. However, if there are consistently many fewer positives to offset the negatives from one argument to the next, and if negative feelings persist afterwards, the marriage probably has communication problems.

A major distinction between positive and negative styles is the kinds of emotions each produces. When we argue, we present our case in a few statements, but at the same time we’re also letting our partner know how we feel about the issue. We can choose from a large pool of words to make our point, and these words can be more or less emotionally charged. Along with our words, we send out a lot of emotional information non-verbally, through our posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, eye contact, and various gestures. The emotions we send out through our body language and our words are as important as the statements themselves, and have as much, if not more, to do with how our message is interpreted and reacted to by our partner.

When we use a negative style, we convey negative emotions along with the verbal messages we’re sending out. Additionally, we may inadvertently communicate more than our feelings about the problem we’re addressing. We may also convey how we feel about our partner. We may not intend to communicate these broader feelings, but that’s how our partner is likely to interpret what we’re saying. How they receive our words can then affect our partner’s feelings about us.

Negative Communication Becomes a Cycle

That’s why arguments for which a negative style is used tend to escalate into bigger fights. Such a style leads to reciprocity. The negative emotions that we send out provoke negative emotions as a response from our partner. The words we say and the emotions we express can make our partner feel hurt and humiliated. The emotions they then experience will lead them to say and do things that will make us feel just as badly. If our tone is condescending or sarcastic, there’s a good chance our partner will give that back in return. Unfortunately, it usually doesn’t end there, because the negativity we receive often leads us to retaliate with more negative messages. As such, many issues that could be resolved won’t be because our communication style prevents us from having a meaningful dialogue.

Styles can also be habit-forming. The one we adopt is often dictated by our past experiences. We tend to remember the prevailing attitude and tone of our prior conflicts, and we assume that our future arguments will follow along the same path. From our expectations as to how our partner will behave, we pre-select a tone we plan to use.

Because our styles can become habits, they can have a long term effect on our relationship in general. When we use a negative style, the bad things that we say are remembered by our partner, and that’s long after we’ve forgotten what was argued about in the first place. These memories can then carry over into other parts of the relationship. Partners may prefer to avoid each other’s company, may lose interest in being intimate, or may take on negative attitudes even when they’re not arguing. The result is to hurt the relationship beyond and out of proportion to the problems they were originally fighting about.

Your Style Says A Lot About How You Rate Your Relationship

Whether we use a positive or negative style may in fact reflect how we feel about our relationship at the time. If we’re feeling connected with our partner and reasonably happy, we’ll probably use a more positive style during a conflict. However, a partner who isn’t happy in his or her relationship might approach an argument with hostility and a negative attitude. So the style that each partner brings to a conflict can be a pretty good indicator of whether the relationship has problems.

Dr. Louis Primavera is the Dean of Touro’s Graduate School of Health Sciences and author of three books, including Making Marriage Work: Avoiding the Pitfalls and Achieving Success published by Rowan and Littlefield, which he co-wrote with Dr. Robert Pascale.