Surprising study finds no robust evidence couples’ communication quality predicts relationship satisfaction over time

Despite conventional wisdom, communication might not always be key when it comes to relationship satisfaction. New research, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, casts doubt on the belief that changes in communication predict future changes in relationship satisfaction within romantic couples.

“Relationship science has viewed communication as a central predictor of relationship satisfaction for decades,” said lead researcher Matthew Johnson of the University of Alberta.

“Good communication is often identified by the general public as one of the most important elements of happy relationships and couple communication is often targeted in education and intervention protocols. Yet, prior research had not adequately tested the question of most central theoretical interest: within a given couple, do changes in communication predict future changes in satisfaction?”

The researchers examined data from three separate longitudinal studies: the Relationship Development Study, the Impact of Stress on Relationship Development of Couples and Children: Longitudinal Approach on Dyadic Development Across the Lifespan (PASEZ) study, and the German Family Panel study. All three studies, which surveyed 4,089 couples in total, included measures of communication and relationship satisfaction.

Couples tended to have lower relationship satisfaction when they reported higher levels of negative communication, such as refusing to speak to, insulting, belittling, criticizing, and yelling at one’s partner. But Johnson and his colleagues failed to find consistent evidence that changes in positive communication were associated with subsequent changes in relationship satisfaction.

Positive communication included behaviors such as listening to one’s partner and endeavoring to clarify one’s own position during a discussion of issues or problems.

“Communication did not robustly predict future satisfaction,” Johnson told PsyPost. “Rather, couples were happier than normal at times when they communicated less negatively than average for them. The key takeaway is that communication may be a correlate of satisfying intimate ties rather than a cause. Efforts to reduce one’s negative communication will likely yield immediate dividends in terms of relational happiness.”

But couples shouldn’t abandon their efforts to improve their communication skills just yet. The findings come with a few important caveats.

“We examined communication during conflict situations. It’s possible more general communication patterns could have a different association with relationship satisfaction. Lags between assessments ranged from 4 months to 1 year. It is possible we’d see more robust longitudinal links at shorter assessment intervals,” Johnson explained.

“Finally, there may be moderators of the communication/satisfaction association, such that communication may more strongly be linked to future satisfaction at certain times. For example, positive communication may predict future changes in satisfaction when couples are dealing with a major problem, but not when handling minor problems. Lots of possibilities that must be untangled in future research.”

The study, “Within-Couple Associations Between Communication and Relationship Satisfaction Over Time,” was authored by Matthew D. Johnson, Justin A. Lavner, Marcus Mund, Martina Zemp, Scott M. Stanley, Franz J. Neyer, Emily A. Impett, Galena K. Rhoades, Guy Bodenmann, Rebekka Weidmann, Janina Larissa Bühler, Robert Philip Burriss, Jenna Wünsche, and Alexander Grob.