What You Don’t Say About Your Relationship Really Matters

Source: Mari Lezhava/Unsplash

Think about the words you would use to describe your romantic partner or your romantic relationship. Would you be surprised to learn that your words do not reveal very much about the quality of your relationship?

Most people describe their partners and relationships positively. In fact, both gay and lesbian as well as heterosexual couples describe their partners more favorably than their partners describe themselves (Conley et al., 2009; Morry et al., 2010) and more favorably than a “typical partner” (Murray et al., 1996a). This phenomenon is referred to as “partner-enhancement” or “positive illusions” (Conley et al., 2009; Morry et al., 2010).

Although most of us describe our partners and relationships positively, we also recognize that it is socially desirable to do so (McNulty et al., 2013). Therefore, researchers have developed other ways of assessing our attitudes toward our romantic partners. Researchers can measure our “implicit” attitudes toward our partners.  Implicit attitudes are defined as our “spontaneous affective reactions” (Eastwick et al., 2011a). These “gut” reactions happen automatically; we can’t control them as we might control our verbal reactions to our mates. Although there are a variety of different methods which can be used to measure our implicit attitudes toward our companions, most implicit measures involve reaction time tasks. 

For example, Faure and colleagues (2018) videotaped couples discussing a conflict. These couples also completed a computerized reaction time task assessing how quickly they associated both positive and negative words with their romantic partners. This type of task assesses our spontaneous “gut” reactions toward a partner, rather than our more explicit evaluations which we express verbally. Not surprisingly, most couples had positive automatic reactions to one another (as evidenced by their tendency to respond more quickly when pairing their partners with positive words). These couples also made more positive verbal statements than negative statements to their partners while discussing their conflicts. What is surprising is that these positive verbal statements were not associated with the couples’ implicit attitudes toward one another. Furthermore, nonverbal behaviors were more strongly related to relationship satisfaction than verbal behaviors. Specific nonverbal behaviors such as smiles, eye contact, and a warm tone of voice were related to couples’ more positive automatic evaluations of one another as well as greater satisfaction with the discussion of the conflict and greater relationship satisfaction over the following week. The authors conclude that “micro-expressions and emotions they spontaneously exhibit toward their partner” more strongly impact the couples’ relationship quality than the words they say to one another. 

Implicit attitude measures have been used to predict a variety of relationship outcomes. For example, a more positive implicit attitude toward a partner is associated with a secure attachment style (Zayas and Shoda, 2005) and a more positive implicit attitude toward an ex-partner is associated with stronger feelings of distress after a break-up (Imhoff and Banse, 2011). 

Perhaps the most interesting relationship result which has been predicted using implicit partner attitudes is marital satisfaction over a four-year period. McNulty and colleagues (2013) measured implicit partner attitudes by asking couples to quickly categorize positive and negative words following photographs of their partners or photographs of control individuals. (Positive implicit attitudes toward a partner were indicated by responding more quickly to positive words following photographs of partners.) Surprisingly, newlyweds’ self-reported explicit attitudes toward their relationships were not associated with their marital satisfaction four years later; however, spouses’ implicit attitudes were. Furthermore, the authors point out that the couples’ implicit and explicit attitudes were not correlated with one another, suggesting that these couples were unaware of their implicit attitudes toward their partners. Although most couples’ marital satisfaction declined over the four-year period, McNulty and colleagues found that spouses whose automatic attitudes toward their partners were more positive as newlyweds declined less in martial satisfaction over the four years. Spouses who had more positive implicit attitudes toward one another also reported fewer relationship problems over time.

In relationships, these unspoken reactions to our partners may be more important determinants of our relationship satisfaction than the words we say to one another.



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