By Sarah Stanton, M.Sc.
Communication is an important part of romantic relationships, especially when navigating conflict or when trying to change a partner’s behavior. Although dealing with these issues can sometimes be distressing, it can also serve as an opportunity for you and your partner to learn about each other and improve your relationship. Indeed, by the end of this article, I hope it is clear that what matters most is not the presence of conflict itself, but rather how you and your partner handle the conflict (i.e. the communication strategies you use).
Communication strategies vary in terms of whether they are active (i.e. addressing a situation in a candid or direct way) versus passive (i.e. addressing a situation in a subtle or roundabout way). They also vary in terms of whether they are constructive (i.e. positive in tone or content) versus destructive (i.e. negative in tone or content). Over the years, researchers have identified four main types of communication strategies in relationships:
Exit refers to behavior that is active and destructive. Joseph uses exit strategies when he, for example, nags Shirley about issues, screams at Shirley when discussing problems, threatens to leave Shirley if she does not change, or ends their relationship.
Voice refers to behavior that is active and constructive. Joseph uses voice strategies when he directly (and positively) discusses his concerns with Shirley, suggests solutions to problems, attempts to change himself or Shirley in order to improve their relationship, or seeks advice from others about how to navigate issues in his relationship.
Loyalty refers to behavior that is passive and constructive. Joseph uses loyalty strategies when he prays that things will get better, hopes that problems will resolve themselves, elects to just “give issues some time,” or remains supportive even when Shirley criticizes him.
Neglect refers to behavior that is passive and destructive. Joseph uses neglect strategies when he decides that he can no longer trust Shirley, ignores Shirley, gives her the “cold shoulder” when discussing problems, or begins to spend less time with Shirley in general.
So, which strategy is best? By and large, the constructive responses (voice and loyalty) are consistently associated with better relationship outcomes, such as greater satisfaction and commitment. The destructive responses (exit and neglect), on the other hand, tend to yield negative outcomes. This is understandable, since exit and neglect strategies are likely to devalue your partner and hinder problem-solving, whereas voice and loyalty strategies promote acceptance and understanding of your partner.
Although voice and loyalty are both constructive, recent studies suggest that loyalty may not always be an ideal communication strategy. For instance, Nickola Overall and her colleagues found that, when partners engaged in voice strategies during interactions by addressing issues directly with each other, they felt listened to and more valued. Engaging in loyalty strategies during interactions by avoiding conflict, however, did not yield these benefits. In fact, people who used loyalty strategies felt ignored by their partners and therefore felt less connected to their relationships (e.g., they felt less close to their partner) after the interaction. The authors reasoned that loyalty, being a passive communication strategy, is less noticeable to the other partner.
Calling back to our earlier hypothetical couple, if Joseph uses loyalty strategies in interactions, Shirley may not pick up on the loyal behaviors or notice that anything is wrong. Whatever issues in the relationship Joseph and Shirley are dealing with, then, are not resolved, nothing changes, and Joseph may feel like his concerns have not been heard or accepted by Shirley.
The take-home message, therefore, seems to be that voice is the best communication strategy to use in your relationship. Voice is active, meaning that your thoughts and feelings will be clear to your partner. Voice is also constructive, meaning that your partner will feel valued and understood as you navigate conflict together. By using communication strategies that are direct and positive, you and your partner will be happier and better-off in the long run.