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Understanding Marital Communication among Ethnically Diverse Newlywed Couples Living with Low Incomes


Communication plays a key role in promoting the success of intimate relationships, but counterintuitive findings suggest that basic questions remain about how communication successfully promotes healthy relationships. This gap in understanding is likely due to three chief problems with current approaches to studying communication, all of which may inadequately describe the phenomenon: 1) Behaviors are traditionally characterized as either positive or negative, 2) Behavior is typically studied at the individual level, instead of as dyadic interactions, 3) Behavior is typically analyzed at the global, summative level, without acknowledging the most important momentary events within the interaction. The current dissertation proposed a new framework and accompanying coding system for studying communication that relies on two dimensions of behavior: cooperation (i.e., task-focused behavior) and affiliation (i.e., relationship-focused behavior). This work proposed that affiliation is the behavioral dimension that dictates the success of communication in promoting relationship quality, while cooperation is only associated with relationship wellbeing to the extent that it is accompanied by affiliation or disaffiliation. Study 1 tested these ideas at the individual mean level, while also examining how dyadic sequences of interaction predict relationship satisfaction over time. At the individual level, affiliation and its interaction with cooperation were associated with relationship satisfaction cross-sectionally, while dyadic sequences of sustained affiliative or disaffiliative reciprocity distinguished between levels of satisfaction cross-sectionally and accounted for variability in trajectories over time. Study 1 suggests that relationship-focused behavior is the key element of communication that accounts for variability in relationship satisfaction levels and trajectories. Study 2 of this dissertation challenges the notions that all behaviors occurring within an interaction contribute equally to relationship satisfaction, and instead draws from the peak-end rule (Kahneman, 2000) to propose that communication quality at three brief moments in couple conversations—namely, at its most positive peak, at its least negative valley, and at the ending moments of the conversation—may be more strongly associated with partners’ global judgments of relationship satisfaction. Higher peak values of husbands’ cooperative behavior were associated with slower declines in wives’ satisfaction, while higher valley values of husbands’ affiliative behavior slowed declines in husbands’ satisfaction, and higher ending values of wives’ affiliative behavior slowed declines in wives’ satisfaction. In sum, specific moments in couples’ conversations appear to have greater predictive value than the overall aggregated valence of their behavior. These two studies reveal that considering relationship-focused behaviors, dyad-level processes, and uniquely meaningful moments of interaction is essential to understanding the constructive or destructive nature of communication processes.

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