Communication is pretty complicated. But it should be simple. There are really only three basic elements to it; a sender, a receiver and a message. There's the encoder of the message, the message itself and then the decoder of the message. That's it. But of course, things become much more complicated when you consider how we can send those messages. In this two part series we're going to talk about how we communicate in relationships.
In this article, we'll explore four common problems men and women have when talking to each other and why. In the second part of the series, we'll explore five of the most common arguments we have in relationships and why they invariably end badly.
The problem with communication
When we want to communicate, we first have to 'encode' the message somehow. We have to translate an idea or a feeling into a form others can recieve it. This is always an imprecise process, because your ideas and feelings are invisible, subtle, and complex.
Fortunately, we have many ways we can 'encode' a message. We can speak, or text, or email.But we aren't limited to words. We can also use body language and tone, things we call 'paralanguage'.
We can also encode our message to different levels of 'richness'. Our texts can use more or less emojis. Our emails more or less punctuation. Our spoken word can use more or less tone, inflection, and our body language can be more or less subtle. Each can be rich, and some means of communication are more rich than others.
All of that available richness is important, because no matter what method of encoding we choose, our paralanguage (i.e. the things we don't say) is usually far more important than the words alone. Whether it's the number of exclamation points you use, or the raising of the eyebrows, an incredible amount of information is conveyed between the lines. This is where, therefore, our messages are most likely to breakdown.
Unhappy people have unhappy messages, but men are worse and women more attentive
Our first finding is that unhappy couples (or rather, unhappy men) are much worse at communicating positive messages to one another. University of Queensland researcher Patricia Noller explored the outcomes of couples sending ambigious messages to one another while trying to convey either neutrality, positivity, or negativity. She found:
- Happy couples are better than unhappy ones at decoding messages each others' messages.
- Happy husbands were not only better at decoding their wives' messages that their unhappy counterparts, but also sent clearer messages (especially positive ones).
- Happy or unhappy, women were no different at sending and decoding messages.
- Unsurprisingly perhaps, women were much better at sending messages overall than men. Men tended to be pretty inconsistent with their words and their paralanguage.
- When a marriage was unhappy, wives would be more attentive to any lack of positivity in message transmission, which happened often, because men become increasingly bad at expressing positivity with unhappiness.
- But, unhappy or happy, couples tended to know whether the messages they sent were clear or not, though unhappy men are more confident at their decoding abilities than happy men (regardless of their ability).
Unhappy couples are vengeful in their messaging, but in a gendered way
When others annoy us, we're more likely to be sassy back. Relationships are no different. This kind of negative affect reciprocity is common in couples. An angry outburst is responded to with the silent treatment. 'Forgetting' to clean the kitchen is followed by the other being 'too tired' for sex. These interactions, messages conveying disappointment and hurt, can link into chains that never end.
And indeed, this particular pattern is so common because it's so difficult to exit and recurs over long periods of time. Each new slight causes a negative response in the other. If attraction is about feeling positively about those who are positive to you, it makes sense that the inverse is an equally pervasive facet of our lives.
The literature suggests that women are more likely to determine the degree of the negative affect reciprocity: women are more likely to respond overtly to negative behaviour in their partners. Instead, men are more likely to withdraw. That said, withdrawal is a negative message in and of itself, so it seems unclear to me at least how we are measuring contributions to reciprocity.
Regardless, the withdrawal of men leads us to our next point.
Men withdraw, women reach out
In 1990, Christensen and Heavey coined the term 'demand-withdraw'. They found that about sixty percent of the time, when couples have a conflict, women will express dissatisfaction with negative emotion (anger, frustration etc). Men will instead withdraw further and further from the problem and their partner. John Gottman called this 'stonewalling'.
Some contend that this particular feature of relationships is nothing more than a dialectic theory--an attempt to manage the pushes and pulls in a relationship. Others have argued that this is a part of the struggle between the desire for personal freedom and space (autonomy) and the desire to be intimate (closeness) that is so pervasive in relationships. It may be that men just need more space than women. But most commonly, this is interpreted as a function of role-socialisation. Women are socialised to express emotion, and men are often not.
In the lab though, what we notice is that men have a pretty significant physical response to conflict with their partners. Much more so than women. Some therefore theorise that this withdrawal is simply a method of controlling and modulating the discomfort from the physical arousal the conflict evokes.
Whatever the case, men have been shown to be less happy in relationships in which problems are avoided, so regardless of the reason, in the long-term stonewalling isn't really helping.
More interesting are the cases where this pattern deviates. There are certain exceptions to the demand-withdrawal dynamic. For example, in the workplace it is often the man that is 'demanding', expressing his emotions about the problem, and the woman who is seen to 'withdraw' from the issue. This has lead to speculation that demand and withdrawal are function of power--whoever has the power is the 'demanding' one, and those with less perceived power withdraw. Ironically, those that withdraw tend to have more power as they are dictating the terms of conflict resolution (the demander wants something), and perhaps this is the reason we do it.
Women like to talk about things and men prefer to not
Bill Swann and his colleagues identified a final dynamic that's worth our attention. They found that all people have a particular level of verbal inhibition. Basically everyone has a certain amount of talking they are comfortable doing. Some people have a high amount of inhibition, and these people tend to struggle to verbalise what they are thinking. Others have a very low level, easily translating thoughts and feelings into words. Swann and co call this, amusingly enough, 'blirtatiousness'.
A particularly common scenario in relationships sees verbally inhibited men partnered with verbally disinhibited (or blirtatious) women. This is a bad pairing. In these cases, men may feel as though they're inadequate at communicating in comparison to their partner, which may lead to more withdrawal. On the other side, the women feels as though her need for connection is not being met. The negative affect generated by this circumstance can become conflict. One that simply entrenches these feelings of distance.
While men and women aren't bound by these terms of communication, the patterns are worth knowing about. Whether from role-socialisation, experiential, or something more physiological, there are common patterns of communication breakdown that are peculiar to the male-female interaction.
Not all communication issues are gendered however. In the next article we discuss five arguments common to all interactions and how they invariably lead to a bad end.