Let's say a problem comes up in your romantic relationship. Do you talk about it or not? Noting that there can be differences in conversational styles between men and women, it must surely be no surprise that communication snafus are a major cause of relationship problems.
But how major a cause? And how serious might the resulting tension be?
According to a recent study by Cornell University's Maureen R. Waller, a couple's ability to communicate is a key factor that marks the difference between an enduring, stable union and a rocky, short-lived one.
The study, published in the April 2008 issue of the interdisciplinary journal Family Relations, was conducted among economically disadvantaged couples with children. Their relationship tensions were similar and numerous, and included concerns such as finances, housing, childcare issues and other personal problems ranging from negative personality traits to substance use and even criminal activity.
In identifying the differences between stable unions and unstable ones, Waller notes that "almost twice as many parents in unstable as stable unions talked about general tensions related to communication—a catchall term parents used to refer to problems such as being open, honest, understanding, and patient with each other."
Parents in stable unions had confidence in the future of their relationship, to some degree because of this ability to work through their problems together. Says Waller, "parents in stable unions often characterized their ability to communicate as one of the primary assets of their relationship." For example, one subject commented: "We're able to talk to each other. Sometimes we may get a little testy, but we can talk."
This trait seems pivotal to solving the other issues that were common to unstable couples. Many couples whose relationships later dissolved during this longitudinal study cited trust and fidelity issues, as well as extended family and social network tensions—issues which might have been resolved if communication lines in the relationship had been open.
But there were some other interesting traits noted in the stable couples who participated in the study. Not only did they communicate well, but they saw their tensions in a different light than did those whose unions later dissolved. In Waller's words, "parents in unstable relationships tended to frame the tensions they were experiencing as problematic and intractable, an interpretation expressed by at least one parent in four out of five of these unions."
In contrast, parents in stable unions believed their tensions could change. They saw them as temporary challenges that could be overcome together.
Is it a coincidence that couples with better communication skills took a more hopeful view of the challenges in their relationship?
It might be tempting sometimes to believe that ignoring an issue will help it go away. In reality, however, relationships of all kinds do require honest, effective and frequent communication to be successful. So—back to the opening question: Do you talk about it, or not?
It depends. Would you prefer a stable, healthy, growing relationship or a rocky one?