Developed by Mary Gosche, Human Development Specialist; Revised by Kim Leon, Associate State Specialist, University of Missouri Extension

Background research

Communication is the cornerstone of relationships. It is the main way that we enact our family relationships and the means by which we create a family identity that is, for better or worse, continued across generations (Vangelisti, 2004). Other key roles that communication plays in the family include:

  • It is a mechanism for the socialization of children.
  • It is the primary way in which family members establish, maintain and dissolve intimate relationships.

In this module, the primary focus is on communication between parents because the quality of communication between parents affects the family in several important ways. It influences the quality and stability of the marital/romantic relationship (Driver, Tabares, Shapiro, Nahm, & Gottman, 2003). In addition, it influences children’s problem-solving skills, ability to relate with peers and level of emotional distress (Vangelisti, 2004).

First, we cover some basic concepts of the communication process. The communication model presented here is based on the work of Shannon and Weaver (1948). Many variations of this model have since been developed. However, the Shannon and Weaver model is still widely used in basic communication texts (DeWine, Gibson, & Smith, 2000) and includes the key elements of the communication process (sender, channel, receiver, feedback) without being too complicated.

Although the communication model focuses primarily on verbal communication, nonverbal communication is equally important, if not more so. A well-known researcher of nonverbal communication, Mehrabian (1981), found that when communicating feelings and attitudes:

  • 7 percent of the message is communicated through the spoken word
  • 38 percent is communicated through body language and tone of voice
  • 55 percent is communicated through facial expression


  • 93 percent of communication of feelings and attitudes is nonverbal

Mehrabian’s findings have been frequently misquoted and overgeneralized to all kinds of situations, but as he points out (1981), the original study in which these percentages were identified was only concerned with communication of feelings and attitudes. In addition, the study specifically focused on situations in which the verbal and nonverbal messages were inconsistent. In Mehrabian’s research, when the speaker’s words did not match his/her facial expressions, the listener tended to believe the facial expression rather than the words. When discussing this research, it is important to provide this context. The percentages identified by Mehrabian (1981) are not equally applicable to all communication situations.

Effective listening is a crucial communication skill. John Gottman and his research team have observed hundreds of couples interacting in their “Love Lab” (Driver et al., 2003). Couples come to the “Love Lab” (an apartment set up with microphones and two-way mirrors) for an overnight or weekend stay so researchers are able to observe their communication and interaction patterns in a setting that is more naturalistic than a typical research lab. From their observations, Gottman’s team has identified patterns of interaction and communication that characterize happy couples. Effective listening is a key part of the patterns seen in those couples in which both partners are satisfied.

For example, some happily married couples tend to validate their spouse’s emotions and opinions when they disagree. In addition, all couples have unsolvable problems (e.g., one person likes to go out and socialize with a group when there is free time while the other prefers a quiet night at home). When discussing these types of problems, satisfied couples listen to each other’s perspective, try to understand the other person’s perspective, and use this understanding as a way to accept the perpetual problem.

Next we turn to the effect of technology on interpersonal communication. In today’s world, much of our communication is mediated by technology, such as email, instant messaging, texting and social media websites such as Facebook™ and Twitter. Researchers have begun to examine the effects of such technology on interpersonal communication. For younger, Caucasian females with a higher income living in a two-adult household, email is a way of staying connected with extended family. This group seems to use email in addition to other forms of communication, rather than as a replacement for other forms, thus increasing the overall amount of communication (Epner & Gross, 2000).

Email and other forms of computer-mediated communication are also used by couples to increase connectedness and maintain their relationship (Sidelinger, Ayash, Godorhazy, & Tibbles, 2008; Pettigrew, 2009). Email and other online forms of communication may be especially beneficial for couples in long-distance relationships (Johnson et al., 2008). For example, one study of military couples in which the husband was deployed at the time of the birth of the couple’s first child found that online communication (e.g., email, instant messaging, Facebook, blogs and chat rooms) was useful in helping the fathers maintain their role as protector and provider (Schachman, 2010).

In addition, some couples use computer-mediated communication (e.g., email, instant messaging) to discuss problems and find these methods just as satisfying as face-to-face discussion. In fact, computer-mediated communication may have some advantages in conflict situations, including increased time for reflection, a decrease in interruptions, and allowing space to think and take a break (Perry & Werner-Wilson, 2011), thus possibly decreasing physiological arousal or “flooding,” which, as we will discuss further in the next section, is crucial for effective communication in conflict situations.

The way couples communicate in conflict situations is highly predictive of whether they will eventually divorce. In fact, Gottman and his colleagues can predict with 94 percent accuracy which couples will go on to divorce after observing only the first few minutes of a conflict discussion (Gottman & Silver, 2000). The Gottman research team has identified four patterns of negative communication that are particularly damaging to relationships. They call these patterns “The Four Horsemen” (named after the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) because when all four are present in couples’ discussions of conflict, they are likely to divorce within the first seven years of marriage. The Four Horsemen are:

  1. Criticism: This includes character attacks (“You’re so lazy!”) and global complaints (“You always …” or “You never …”). It differs from a simple complaint, which is about a specific situation or behavior (“I’m upset that you didn’t empty the dishwasher this morning”).
  2. Contempt: Is conveying disgust and disrespect through sarcasm, mockery, insults, eye rolls, scowls, and/or hostile humor. Contempt is considered the most damaging of the Four Horsemen.
  3. Defensiveness: This becomes a way to blame a partner instead of taking responsibility for one’s own behavior. For example, “I would help with the laundry more if you weren’t always telling me I’m doing it wrong.” A defensive response usually escalates negativity.
  4. Stonewalling: This includes disengagement, looking away or down or not acknowledging a partner. Husbands stonewall more often than wives. The stonewaller usually feels overwhelmed by the conflict and is disengaging as a way of self-protection, but this kind of disengagement makes listening and constructive problem-solving unlikely.

Part of the reason the Four Horsemen are so damaging is that they often lead to flooding, which is when one or both partners become physically or emotionally overwhelmed. Physiological symptoms of flooding include sweaty palms, increased heart rate and shallow breathing, which make it difficult to think clearly, listen and problem-solve. The main focus becomes self-preservation.

Taking a break and engaging in soothing behaviors is the most effective antidote to flooding. Anything the person finds soothing can be effective; the key is to avoid ruminating on the conflict. It is also crucial to return to the discussion when both partners are feeling calm, so that taking a break doesn’t become a way of stonewalling.

In addition to taking breaks and engaging in self-soothing behaviors, happy couples use the techniques of repair attempts and accepting influence to effectively manage conflict (Gottman & Silver, 2000). Repair attempts are behaviors that are intended to reduce tension and de-escalate the conflict. For example, taking a break (and agreeing to come back to the discussion later) is a frequently used repair attempt. Other couples might have a special signal, such as making a silly face, or using a certain “code word” to put on the brakes.

Couples who are more satisfied in their marriages are more likely to both initiate repair attempts and to accept them when initiated by the partner. In unhappy couples, partners either do not make repair attempts or one person tries, but the other does not accept the attempts and continues conflict-escalating behaviors instead. A related idea is that of accepting the partner’s influence.

Gottman and colleagues have found that relationships are more successful when husbands can accept influence from their wives. That is, husbands are willing to allow their decisions to be influenced by their wives’ perspectives. Why is it more important for husbands to be able to do this? Gottman found that, in general, wives already do this much more than husbands, so whether the husband accepts influence has more effect on relationship satisfaction.

All couples have conflict and most couples find that they continue to have conflicts about the same issues over and over. In fact, Gottman (Gottman & Silver, 2000) suggests that in healthy marriages, about 70 percent of problems are unsolvable. They keep popping up repeatedly over the years. These are fundamental differences in areas such as personality, beliefs or preferences. For example, one partner saves money, the other spends, or one is an introvert and one is an extrovert.

How can these problems be managed? Couples must learn to accept and cope with unsolvable problems. Trying to really understand the partner’s position and the underlying needs and desires and finding a way that both can agree on to meet some of those needs is the basis of coping with these unsolvable problems. For example, when one partner wants more children than the other, it may be helpful to look at the underlying needs and desires.

The one who wants more may have a need to nurture or to be part of a large, close-knit social group. The one who wants fewer may have a greater need for independence, personal time and adult pursuits. So, then the couple can discuss ways to meet each of those needs that are agreeable to both. Each person may not get exactly what he/she wants, but the goal is to find a compromise that is tolerable to each person. Having a sense of humor about unsolvable problems can also be helpful. The following anecdote provides a good illustration:

On her golden wedding anniversary, my grandmother revealed the secret of her long and happy marriage. “On my wedding day, I decided to choose ten of my husband’s faults which, for the sake of our marriage, I would overlook,” she explained. A guest asked her to name some of the faults. “To tell the truth,” she replied, “I never did get around to listing them. But whenever my husband did something that made me hopping mad, I would say to myself, ‘Lucky for him that’s one of the ten.’” (Roderick MacFarlane, Reader’s Digest, Dec. 1992, p.104)

Although the Four Horsemen are extremely damaging to relationships, emotional disengagement is equally harmful. Couples who are emotionally disengaged do not show high levels of negativity, but they show very little interest, positive affect or concern for each other (Driver et al., 2003). They are likely to divorce after 7-14 years.

Gottman and his colleagues have found that happy couples find ways in their daily lives to stay emotionally connected. In fact, stable couples tend to exhibit five times more positive behaviors than negative behaviors. Many couples have found Dr. Gary Chapman’s (2010) work on the Five Love Languages to be helpful in increasing the positivity and friendship in their relationship.

Based on observing couples during 30 years of marital counseling, Dr. Chapman (2010) suggests that everyone has a primary way of expressing and receiving love, which he termed a “love language.” The five love languages he observed are words of affirmation, quality time, gift giving, acts of service and physical touch. In his experience, most people are in relationships with people who speak a love language that differs from their own, so the challenge lies in learning the partner’s love language and how to speak it.

According to Dr. Chapman, children also have their own love language and parent-child relationships can be improved when parents learn to speak their children’s love language. There has been little empirical research on the five love languages; however, one study does provide some preliminary support for the validity of this model (Egbert & Polk, 2006).

In this study, the authors created a measure of the five love languages that included 20 behaviors derived from Chapman’s book, which participants rated on a 5-point Likert-type scale (1 = strongly disagree; 5 = strongly agree). They found significant relationships between the five factors from this measure and a previously validated relational maintenance typology. These findings provide preliminary empirical support for the five love languages; however, further research is needed.

Goals and objectives

  • Understand that communication is a two-way process
  • Recognize the importance of nonverbal communication
  • Practice effective communication skills
  • Practice strategies for use in difficult communication situations
  • Identify ways to strengthen relationships, which is the foundation of good communication

Target audience

  • Adults
  • Children ages 5 to 12 (see the Communicating for Youth topic)
  • Adults and youth together

If you have any questions or need information, contact:

Kathy Dothage
Building Strong Families Program Coordinator
University of Missouri Extension
1205 University Avenue, Ste. 400
Columbia, MO 65211

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Last updated: 05/16/2017
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