Communication is pretty complicated. But it should be simple. I mean, even psychologists admit that there are only three basic elements to it; a sender, a receiver and a message. And they love to complicate their models. But it’s true, there is the encoder of the message, the message itself and then the decoder of the message. That’s it. But, as I’ve hinted it becomes a lot 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 (from a psychology viewpoint) and then I’ll cover four common problems men and women have when talking to each other. In the second part of the series, I’ll cover five common five of the worst kinds of arguments for any relationship we have. Hopefully, after this two part series you’ll be able to identify and quash these, becoming a far better communicator in the process.
Encoding a message could be, saying it out loud, texting it, emailing it. But it can also be body language and tone. It could be what psychologists call ‘rich’, using a few different ways to get the message across, like sitting across from someone – you’ve got the words, the face, the tone and the body. Or it could be poor, like text messaging or tweeting.
I’m sure you’ve heard some statistic before about how 70% or 90% or 60% of communication is sent through the body language, the eyebrows, the gestures, whatever. No one really seems to agree there, but the point is pretty clear in that our paralanguage (that is, the stuff we don’t say out loud) is usually more important than the words alone (check out this brief article on spotting deception for an example). Our messages can be simple, but they can be bloody complex as well. It depends on the encoder and how well they encode the message. Is it ambiguous? Have the sent it through the right medium? Maybe a text isn’t communicative enough. This sort of thing really has an impact on our messages. But not only that, it depends on the ‘noise’ or interference with the message. Is the phone line bad? Maybe the message is in broken English. What if the encoder (sender) has a blank face when they say something; how is it supposed to be taken? What if the decoder (receiver) doesn’t have their hearing aid in? Communication is hard. Here’s four common problems men and women have when trying to navigat
1. Unhappy couples suck at sending positive messages.
Patricia Noller did a bunch of studies with married couples. She got them to send ambiguous messages to each other and try to convey either neutrality, positivity or negativity. She also measured their happiness in the relationship. She found the following:
- Happy couples are better at decoding messages from each other
- 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, women were much better at sending messages than men. Men tended to be pretty inconsistent with their words and their paralanguage.
- When a marriage was unhappy, wives would be concerned at any lack of positivity, which happened often, because men become really bad at expressing it.
- But, unhappy or happy, couples tended to know whether their messages were clear or not, although unhappy men are more confident at their decoding abilities than happy men (regardless of their ability).
So happy couples are much better at this stuff. Unhappy couples however tend to be much more neutral and negative. See the problem here?
2. When we’re unhappy, we tend to fall into ‘tit-for-tat’ scenarios
Psychologists call this negative affect (a fancy word for emotion) reciprocity. When one partner does something wrong, we turn around and do something back. For example, someone might respond to an angry outburst with the silent treatment. This could lead to one partner ‘forgetting’ to cook dinner which might lead to one partner being ‘too tired’ for sex, which could lead to the other partner ‘forgetting’ movie plans. This sort of thing tends to re-occur over very long periods of time and is a hard pattern to get out of.
And ladies, unfortunately the statistics show that it tends to be you that determine the degree (at least in lab situations). Wives usually return the favour when the perceive a negative behaviour (maybe their expectations are violated), and are more likely to respond than unhappy husbands. Husbands you see, are more likely to withdraw, which leads us to our next point…
3. During a conflict, men ‘withdraw’ but women need more.
In 1990, Christensen and Heavey coined the ‘demand-withdraw’ term for their studies on couple conflict resolution. They found that about sixty percent of the time, when couples have a conflict women will begin to express lots of negative emotion (anger, frustration etc.) and men will withdraw further and further from the problem and their partner. John Gottman called this ‘stonewalling‘. It leads to the classic, ‘why aren’t you listening? Are you even hearing what I’m saying?’. Now some of you might recognise this as a dialectic theory (managing the pushes and pulls in a relationship). And some 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. Perhaps men just need more space than women. Often, this is thought to be a function of role-socialisation, where 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. So, as this physical arousal in uncomfortable, some theorise it’s a way of controlling and modulating that discomfort. Giving them time to cool off and return to baseline. Unfortunately men have been shown to be less happy in relationships in which problems are avoided, so long-term, stonewalling isn’t really helping.
However, the classic pattern is not always the case. There are certain exceptions from this that are consistent. 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 it’s a 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.
4. Some people like to talk and some people really don’t
Bill Swann and his colleagues identified a pretty common issue in marriages in 2003. They found that people all 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. Some people have a very low level, easily translating thoughts and feelings into words (hilariously called ‘blirtatiousness’). They found a common scenario in which verbally inhibited men were partnered with verbally disinhibited (or blirtatious) wives. This is a bad pairing. You often hear men say ‘she’s always talking at me, I can’t compete with it, I can’t express myself as well as her’. This sort of becomes a bear pit for the poor fella that the wife is dropping him into. Not because she’s malicious, but because she craves that connection so much she’s constantly trying to bring him out, feeling ignored. Unfortunately this just shows the man how bad he is at it and he might feel attacked.
So, there are some things that are pretty unique to men and women. But always remember, there is rarely a rule that applies to all relationships. Sometimes, men and women can swap in what applies to them. Just be aware of the common issues and how they might be affecting you and your relationships!
Make sure you’ve checked out the other part in this two part series, if you haven’t already! Or maybe you’ll want to check out five ways of thinking in a relationship that most people think are bad (but are actually good)? Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.
Thumbnail image courtesy of Paul Shanks (Flickr)