Journal of Family Violence

, Volume 25, Issue 4, pp 439–448

Self-Reported Communication Variables and Dating Violence: Using Gottman’s Marital Communication Conceptualization

Authors

    • Department of PsychologyGrand Valley State University
  • Ryan C. Shorey
    • University of Tennessee—Knoxville
  • Stacy M. Beebe
    • Department of PsychologyGrand Valley State University
Original Article

DOI: 10.1007/s10896-010-9305-9

Cite this article as:
Cornelius, T.L., Shorey, R.C. & Beebe, S.M. J Fam Viol (2010) 25: 439. doi:10.1007/s10896-010-9305-9

Abstract

Communication behaviors, while extensively studied within the marital field, have received only peripheral attention in violent dating relationships. The purpose of this research was to better establish empirical continuity between the marital and dating literatures by exploring communication variables that have been identified in marital relationships broadly and their self-reported manifestation in violent dating relationships. Using Gottman’s (1999) marital communication conceptualization, individuals were assessed on adaptive and maladaptive communication variables and relationship aggression. Results suggested that negative communication behaviors were associated with, and predicted, aggression in participants’ dating relationships, consistent with findings from the marital literature. However, repair attempts, generally considered an adaptive communication behavior, predicted aggression victimization. Implications and how these data fit within the context of recent research on positive marital communication behaviors are explored.

Keywords

Partner abuseDatingCommunication skills

Intimate partner violence (IPV) has long been an area of inquiry for researchers, particularly violence that occurs in the context of marital relationships (Frye and Karney 2006). While this area of research is certainly warranted and has yielded important findings, research examining violence in dating relationships has historically been relatively sparse. Due, in part, to the lack of definitional agreement in the dating violence literature, prevalence rates of dating violence are widely variable, depending on the population sampled, methodological differences, and the particular criteria used for denoting the presence of dating violence. Despite these limitations, research in this area consistently suggests that approximately 20–37% of dating couples have experienced some form of physical aggression in their relationship (Bell and Naugle 2007; Cate et al. 1982; Magdol et al. 1997; Straus 2004; White and Koss 1991). Additionally, several studies suggest that psychological aggression may appear at much higher rates of 70–88% (Lo and Sporakowski 1989; Neufeld et al. 1999; White and Koss 1991). Additionally, dating violence is associated with a variety of deleterious health effects on each of the individual partners in the relationship, including reduced self-esteem and self-worth, increased self-blame, anger, hurt, and anxiety (Jackson et al. 2000; Jezl et al. 1996; Makepeace 1986; Nightingale and Morrissette 1993; Smith and Donnelly 2001; Truman-Schram et al. 2000). While examination of the individual variables and consequences of dating violence is important, family researchers have increasingly advocated for analysis of relational patterns and proximal variables related to dating violence, including interaction patterns (Feldman and Ridley 2000). To address this, recent research has examined the construct of dating violence from an interactional perspective, including processes that are happening at the dyadic, systemic level, rather than individual pathology components (e.g., Capaldi et al. 2007). The current project builds upon this trend and seeks to systematically evaluate the self-reported communication processes identified in violent dating relationships using Gottman’s model of communication behaviors.

Within the marital field broadly, and marital violence specifically, one of the most extensively studied interactional processes is communication behavior. Negative verbal communication during conflict discussions has been shown to predict deterioration of relationship satisfaction, particularly in the absence of positive affect and when the ratio of negative to positive behaviors is high (Punyanunt-Carter 2004). Furthermore, less facilitative, more aversive, and greater negative reciprocity of communication patterns have been shown to differentiate between physically aggressive and non-aggressive couples, with the aggressive couples evidencing less adaptive communication (Cordova et al. 1993). In addition, one salient pattern of communication is the demand-withdraw pattern (Berns et al. 1999a), in which one member of the dyad criticizes, nags, and makes demands of the partner (the demander), and the other partner withdraws and attempts to avoid conflict (the withdrawer). Withdrawing is associated with feelings of frustration and discomfort following conflict (Harper and Welsh 2007). This pattern has been well established cross-culturally, is associated with marital dissatisfaction (Eldridge et al. 2007), appears to be a precursor to poor marital adjustment (Thompson 1995; Thompson et al. 2001), and is associated with physical and psychological aggression perpetration (Berns et al. 1999b; Holtzworth-Munroe et al. 1998).

In addition to demand/withdraw behaviors, Gottman (1999) identified several behaviors that are particularly indicative of distress in relationships. One series of behaviors, which he termed the four horsemen, includes a cascading of responses such as expressing criticism, defensiveness, contempt, sarcasm, hostility, and withdrawal, the combination of which indicate a critical state of marriage dissolution. He also identified several other behaviors that contribute to marital distress, including flooding, harsh start-up, and gridlock, which involve escalating physiological and emotional arousal and rigid communication interaction patterns. Additionally, Gottman (1999) identified various protective factors, including repair attempts and accepting influence, that seem to be indicative of more adaptive processes in marital relationships. These interactional variables, according to Gottman (1999), are important in understanding the process of mutual influence married couples exert on each other and can differentiate couples who remain married from those who divorce. These constructs have been examined in marital relationships and have been shown to distinguish martially satisfied from dissatisfied couples (Cornelius and Alessi 2007; Cornelius et al. 2007).

Communication behaviors, while extensively studied within the marital field, have received only peripheral attention within the field of violent dating relationships, preventing a useful link between the two literatures. Some dating violence research has suggested that physically aggressive couples are more likely to respond to conflict with hostile communication than non-violent couples (Robertson and Murachver 2007), evidence higher rates of demand/withdraw behavior (Feldman and Ridley 2000), and use less constructive communication relative to negative communication (Follette and Alexander 1992). Further, negative communication behaviors, such as blaming, threatening, name-calling, and criticizing, are found at higher rates in physically aggressive dating relationships versus non-aggressive ones (Feldman and Ridley 2000). Individuals reporting physical aggression in their dating relationships also report poorer overall communication skills (Follingstad et al. 1999) , and some data suggest that male positive communication, such as agreeing, approving, smiling/laughing, and compromising, is related to lower levels of physical aggression, and male negative communication behaviors, such as complaining, criticizing, disagreeing, and putting down, are related to the presence of physical aggression in dating relationships (Follette and Alexander 1992). Both victims and perpetrators of violence within dating relationships show fewer responses that encourage their partner, less tentative language conveying politeness, and less laughter than non-violent couples (Robertson and Murachver 2007). However, to date, the research on communication behaviors has been minimal and largely neglected as the primary variables of research in violent dating relationships. Further, much of the research in this area has been atheoretical and not informed by conceptualizations and research from the marital field. Thus, better examination of communication variables, specifically within the context of Gottman’s theoretical communication model, may be a fruitful line of research to better connect these two literatures.

Numerous lines of research connect violence in dating relationships to marital relationships. Research has suggested that a substantial proportion of newlywed couples report physical and psychological aggression in their relationships (Lawrence and Bradbury 2007; Testa and Leonard 2001) and this aggression is associated concurrently and longitudinally with marital distress and dissolution (Lawrence and Bradbury 2007; Rogge and Bradbury 1999). It is also reasonable to speculate that many of these aberrant behavioral patterns are established while the individual is dating and continue into marriage. For example, data indicate that approximately one-third of couples have experienced physical aggression in the year prior to marriage (O’Leary et al. 1989), suggesting continuity of violence from courtship to marriage. What is less clear in the research is whether aberrant communication processes are also established in dating relationships and then later contribute to difficulty in marital relationships. Researchers have recently advocated for better empirical linkage between the marital and dating literatures in order to better understand how processes occurring during dating may continue into marriage (Shorey et al. 2008). In order to better understand the possible developmental trajectory of communication behaviors that may contribute to subsequent relationship adjustment, it would be useful to have more data to examine how corrosive and adaptive communication variables identified in marital relationships are manifesting in violent dating relationships. Gottman’s conceptualization of communication behaviors is a useful framework from the marital literature that could also be applied to individuals reporting aggression in their dating relationships This conceptualization was chosen because of its focus on interactional variables in couples and the relationship of such variables to relationship dissatisfaction. Therefore, the purpose of the present research was to examine how the communication variables that have been demonstrated to be corrosive in marital relationships may be identified in dating relationships, particularly those in which violence is occurring. In the current paper, dating relationships refer to non-cohabitating dating couples, as cohabitating dating couples have been shown to be similar in nature to married couples (Brown and Booth 1996).

Because this is the first study to evaluate the Gottman communication behaviors in dating individuals, it is unknown whether these variables will manifest in dating relationships similar to their manifestation in marital relationships. Rationally, it seems likely, given the research reported above, that higher rates of negative communication behaviors will be evident in individuals reporting aggression in their dating relationships. However, there are several differences between most dating and marital relationships, including differences in familial and economic attachment, the presence of children, and involvement in each other’s families of origin (Carlson 1987). That dating relationships do not involve a legal binding relationship suggests that, at least theoretically, alternative relationships are more accessible to dating couples than to married individuals. A further distinction between dating and marital couples is that dating violence is often low in severity and mutual in nature, consistent with a situational couple violence classification of IPV (Johnson and Leone 2005). In contrast, and relative to dating couples, marital relationships are more likely to evidence more severe, one-sided aggression, consistent with an intimate terrorism IPV classification (Johnson and Leone 2005), as economic control and the use of children for power and control are more likely to occur in marital relationships and less likely to occur in dating relationships. Furthermore, several researchers have examined several unique factors associated with adolescent dating violence. First, adolescents may experience intense peer pressure to conform to social norms, which strongly encourage participation in intimate dating relationships. Deviating from that norm by terminating a dating relationship may lead to ostracism and, therefore, a teen may feel pressure to continue even a violent relationship (Sousa 1999; Smith and Donnelly 2001). Thus, while it is reasonable to speculate that dating relationships may be characterized by the same types of communication behaviors seen in married individuals, it is also possible that the differences in these relationships may lead to differential outcomes in terms of violence. Therefore, it is important to further research Gottman’s communication variables in the context of dating relationships to determine if the variables are similarly manifested as they appear in marital relationships.

Hypotheses

We hypothesized that higher levels of physical and psychological aggression in the dating relationship would be positively associated with self-reported negative communication behaviors and negatively associated with self-reported positive communication behaviors. Specifically, we anticipated that aggression would be negatively associated with Repair Attempts and Accepting Influence and positively associated with Flooding, Gridlock, Harsh Start-up, and the Four Horsemen. Further, we hypothesized that communication behaviors would predict categorization in violent/non-violent groups, as indicated by logistic regression. In particular for dating relationships, given the social norms related to maintaining a dating relationship in young adults and potential naiveté with regard to dating relationships and negative communication behaviors, we expected the Four Horsemen, the most toxic of the communication variables assessed, to emerge as a significant predictor of aggression classification.

Method

Participants

Participants were recruited through the introductory psychology research pool at a large, public, Midwestern university. Participants qualified for the study if they indicated a current or previous dating relationship, defined as planned, social, romantic, or intimate activity with another individual. Due to low response rates for homosexual relationships (n = 3), these cases were excluded from the present analyses. Additionally, approximately 4% of the sample reported that they were cohabitating (n = 7), and since some literature suggests that cohabitating individuals may be more similar to married couples than dating couples (Brown and Booth 1996) these cases were excluded. This resulted in a sample of 173 undergraduate students. The majority of the sample was female (80%) and non-Hispanic White (86%), which is consistent with the enrollment patterns of introductory psychology classes and the ethnic makeup of the university where the research was conducted. The average age of participants was 18.38 and the modal academic standing was freshman. In terms of participants’ dating relationships, the mean number of months dating a partner was 14.82 (SD = 12.7), and 73% reported that they were exclusively dating their partner.

Materials

Several self-report measures were administered to participants. A brief demographic measure assessed age, gender, and race, as well as the gender of their partner and the length of their current or most recent relationship.

The Revised Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS2; Straus et al. 1996) was used to assess for the physical and psychological aggression that occurred in a dating relationship, including both perpetration and victimization. The CTS2 is a 78-item self-report measure that contains five subscales: (1) physical assault, (2) psychological aggression, (3) sexual coercion, (4) injury and (5) negotiation. For the current analyses, we focused on the psychological aggression and physical assault subscales. Participants rated on a 6-point scale (1=once; 6=more than 20 times) the number of times in the previous year a particular aggressive behavior was used by the participant and his/her partner. Example items include “My partner threw something at me that could hurt” and “I called my partner fat or ugly”. The CTS2 has demonstrated good construct and discriminant validity and good reliability, with internal consistency ranging from .79 to .95 (Straus et al. 1996).

The Dyadic Adjustment Scale (DAS; Spanier 1976) was used to assess relationship satisfaction. The DAS is a brief, 32-item, widely used measure of global relationship satisfaction and reliably distinguishes between distressed and non-distressed couples, with higher scores indicating higher relationship satisfaction. The DAS is the preferred self-report instrument of relationship satisfaction because of its brevity, application to non-married individuals, and solid psychometric properties. Internal consistency estimates, test–retest reliability, and concurrent and discriminant validity for the DAS are strong (Carey et al. 1993; Spanier 1976).

Six short self-report measures were used to assess several component communication skills (Gottman 1999). Specifically, the questionnaires assessed Repair Attempts, Accepting Influence, Harsh Start-Up, Flooding, Gridlock, and the Four Horsemen. These six measures were chosen because they were of theoretical and clinical interest to the authors, incorporated both adaptive and maladaptive communication behaviors, and included those aspects of couple communication considered by many to be most toxic, including withdrawal and contempt (Gottman 1999; Gottman et al. 1998; Johnson 2003). Further, previous researchers have established the reliability of these measures (Cornelius and Alessi 2007), their validity in distinguishing levels of distress among married couples (Cornelius and Alessi 2007; Cornelius et al. 2007), and their clinical utility as self-report measures of marital communication behaviors (Cornelius et al. 2007). Each inventory utilized a true–false format in which the partners indicated whether or not various behaviors are characteristic of their relationship interactions.

Repair Attempts (20 items) assessed the tendency of partners to minimize negative statements, use humor, and take breaks during conflict episodes. Example items for Repair Attempts include “Even when arguing, we can maintain a sense of humor” and “If things get heated, we can usually pull out of it and change things”. Accepting Influence (20 items) assessed partner’s perception of shared influence on their partner, and includes items that suggest perceived persuasion in the relationship. Example items include “I can usually find something to agree with in my partner’s position” and “I don’t reject my partner’s opinion out of hand”. Harsh Start-up (20 items) assessed escalation from neutral to negative affect in the initial broaching of a topic. Example items for Harsh Start-up include “I hate the way my partner raises an issue” and “Before I know it, we are in a fight”. Gridlock (20 items) assessed unreasonable demands, unwillingness to compromise, and withdrawing, either physically or emotionally, from the conversation. Example items include “We keep hurting each other whenever we discuss our core issues” and “What I say in our discussions rarely has much effect”. Flooding (15 items) encompassed a set of negative communication behaviors including feeling overwhelmed, both emotionally and physiologically, which results in an inability to process information and/or actively participate in problem-solving discussions. The Flooding scale includes items such as “I feel overwhelmed by our arguments” and “I feel like running away during our fights”. Finally, the Four Horsemen (30 items) assessed an iterative, cascading sequence of responses in which partner A expresses criticism, partner B responds with defensiveness, partner A reacts to defensiveness with contempt, sarcasm, and/or hostility, with partner B eventually withdrawing from, or stonewalling, the conversation. This cascading negative sequence which occurs as a repetitive, interlocking pattern is believed to signify a critical end-stage process of relationship dissolution, representing a final common causal pathway to relationship dissolution (see Gottman 1994). Example items for the Four Horsemen include “I feel basically disrespected” and “I usually feel like my personality is being assaulted”. For each measure, the individual items on each scale were summed to generate a total score for each of the six behavior constructs. High scores on each measure indicate higher degrees of that particular communication tactic area and low scores characterize lesser degrees of that communication tactic.

Results

Descriptive statistics for the CTS2 and the DAS are presented in Table 1. Eighty-two percent of the participants reported that they had perpetrated psychological aggression in their current relationship and 79% of the participants reported that they had experienced victimization of psychological aggression. Approximately 35% of the sample reported perpetration of physical aggression in their relationships, and 31% reported victimization. For the full sample, only two of the participants who reported perpetration or victimization of physical aggression reported experiencing no psychological aggression. Rates of aggression were similar for male and female participants. Amongst male participants, 80% reported perpetration and 80% reported victimization of psychological aggression; 31% reported perpetration and 34% reported victimization of physical aggression. Amongst females, 83% reported perpetration and 79% reported victimization of psychological aggression; 36% reported perpetration and 30% reported victimization of physical aggression. Consistent with previous research, the rates of bidirectionality were very high for both types of violence. Among those reporting psychological aggression, 95% of participants reported both perpetration and victimization of psychological aggression. Among those reporting physical aggression, 70% reported both perpetration and victimization. Overall, the results from the CTS2 are consistent with previous research showing a moderate amount of physical aggression, high levels of psychological aggression, and very high levels of bidirectionality of aggression (e.g., Bell and Naugle 2007; Shook et al. 2000; Simonelli and Ingram 1998).
Table 1

Descriptive statistics for CTS2 subscales and DAS

Variable

M

SD

Range

CTS2

 Psychological aggression

  Perpetration

14.56

16.20

1–83

  Victimization

14.12

17.85

1–110

 Physical aggression

  Perpetration

6.47

10.84

1–49

  Victimization

8.89

16.38

1–109

DAS Total Score

114.29

15.87

59–146

To determine the relationship between the communication variables and physical and psychological aggression, zero-order correlations were conducted and are displayed in Table 2. All correlation coefficients were statistically significantly and in the expected direction, with one exception. Physical aggression perpetration was not significantly associated with relationship satisfaction (p = .07). In order to determine if the communication measures predicted violence classification, logistic regression analyses were conducted (see Table 3). A dichotomous approach was used for all regression analyses such that participants were identified as perpetrators or victims of psychological and physical aggression if they reported higher than zero levels of aggression on the relevant violence subscales on the CTS2. For example, if an individual reported higher than zero levels of psychological perpetration, they would be considered a perpetrator of psychological aggression. This approach was conducted for ease of interpretation and because the CTS2 scales were significantly skewed in this sample and thus resulted in violation of the normality assumption. Logistic regression was also preferable because it does not assume homeoscadesticity, normality, or linearity of the dependent variable and thus is a more appropriate analytic strategy given the skew in the CTS2 data. It is also consistent with the approach of other researchers in this field (i.e., Luthra and Gidycz 2006). The regression analyses were conducted using a forward stepwise likelihood ratio model to reduce the regression model to one containing only significant predictor variables. In order to ensure that relationship satisfaction was not a better predictor of violence, dyadic satisfaction was included in the logistic regression analyses. It was not a significant predictor and was therefore not included in the final models. This suggests that it is the communication variables, and not relationship satisfaction, that seem to be most important in prediction of aggression.
Table 2

Zero order correlation among study variables

Variable

Psychological

Physical

Perpetration

Victimization

Perpetration

Victimization

Repair attempts

−0.32**

−.046**

−.019*

−0.30**

Accepting influence

−0.40**

−0.42**

−0.21**

−0.29**

Harsh start up

0.48**

0.58**

0.22**

0.36**

Gridlock

0.35**

0.43**

0.16*

0.26**

Flooding

0.50**

0.53**

0.24**

0.33**

Four horsemen

0.47**

0.54**

0.21**

0.31**

Relationship satisfaction

−0.29**

−0.40**

−0.14

−0.22**

Psychological perpetration

0.84**

0.55**

0.53**

Psychological victimization

0.84**

0.49**

0.62**

Physical perpetration

0.53**

0.49**

0.76**

Physical victimization

0.53**

0.62**

0.76**

*p < .05, **p < .01

Table 3

Logistic regression analyses predicting perpetration and victimization of dating violence

Variable

\( \hat{A} \)

\( SE\,\hat{a} \)

Pseudo R2

\( {\text{Exp}}\left( {{{\hat{a}}}} \right) \)

p

Physical perpetration

 Flooding

0.24

0.06

.122

1.28

0.00

Physical victimization

 Repair attempts

0.14

0.07

.182

1.16

0.03

 Four horsemen

0.17

0.03

 

1.19

0.00

Psychological perpetration

 Four horsemen

0.42

0.10

.236

1.53

0.00

Psychological victimization

 Repair attempts

0.23

0.11

.247

1.26

0.03

 Four horsemen

0.42

0.09

 

1.52

0.00

Prediction of Physical Perpetration

A test of the full model against a constant-only model was statistically significant χ2 (1, N = 173) = 22.59, p ≤ .001. The final model consisted of one variable, Flooding, which significantly predicted physical perpetration. The model predicting physical perpetration had a sensitivity of 67.6%, indicating that perpetrators were accurately classified about 68% of the time.

Prediction of Physical Victimization

A test of the full model against a constant-only model was statistically significant χ2 (2, N = 173) = 34.82, p ≤ .001. The final model consisted of two variables, Repair Attempts and Four Horsemen, which significantly predicted physical victimization. Interestingly, the more repair attempts evidenced, the higher the level of physical victimization. The model predicting physical victimization had a sensitivity of 73.4%, indicating that victims were accurately classified about 73% of the time.

Prediction of Psychological Perpetration

A test of the full model against a constant-only model was statistically significant χ2 (1, N = 173) = 46.62, p ≤ .001. The final model consisted of one variable, Four Horsemen, which significantly predicted psychological perpetration. The model predicting psychological perpetration had a sensitivity of 82.7%, indicating that perpetrators were accurately classified about 83% of the time.

Prediction of Psychological Victimization

A test of the full model against a constant-only model was statistically significant χ2 (2, N = 173) = 49.12, p ≤ .001. The final model consisted of two variables, Repair Attempts and Four Horsemen, which significantly predicted psychological victimization. The model predicting psychological victimization had a sensitivity of 80.9%, indicating that victims were accurately classified about 81% of the time.

Discussion

The purpose of the present research was to examine how communication processes identified as detrimental and adaptive in marital relationships may be manifesting in violent dating relationships. Our first hypothesis speculated that aggression would be negatively associated with more adaptive communication behaviors and positively associated with negative communication. The second hypothesis, an extension of the first, predicted that communication variables would predict membership in violent/nonviolent groups. The results from this study largely confirm our hypotheses. Related to the first hypothesis, the correlation data suggest that those reporting physical and psychological aggression are evidencing higher rates of Gridlock, the Four Horsemen, Flooding, and Harsh Start-up, and fewer instances of Repair Attempts and Accepting Influence, which is consistent with the Gottman conceptualization of adaptive communication behaviors. Individuals who reported aggression in their relationships also reported less skilled communication behaviors. Thus, it appears from these data that those communication variables that have been studied in marital relationships are manifesting in a similar fashion in dating relationships.

The second hypothesis was largely supported, such that the communication variables were useful in predicting violence classification. For physical perpetration, the only significant predictor was Flooding, which is characterized by feeling overwhelmed, which may result in an inability to process information and actively participate in problem-solving discussions. This finding may suggest that one of the relationship features related to physical perpetration is a feeling of being overwhelmed or an inability to manage physiological and psychological arousal. It seems reasonable that these experiences in the relationship might culminate in physical perpetration. It is possible that perpetrators of physical aggression evidence poorer emotional and physiological regulation skills, and in a state of physiological and emotional arousal, evidence aggression in their relationships rather than more adaptive forms of problem-solving. Further, it is possible that physical aggression terminates the relationship stress that contributed to the experience of being overwhelmed and, thus, represents a form of negative reinforcement. Indeed, this interpretation is consistent with recent behavioral conceptualizations of intimate partner violence (Bell and Naugle 2008).

For all others forms of aggression (physical victimization, psychological victimization, and perpetration) the Four Horsemen emerged as significant predictors of classification, which is expected given that this construct includes very negative, contemptuous behaviors. This is consistent with marital research which contends that these communication behaviors are highly toxic and erode relationship satisfaction (Cornelius et al. 2007; Gottman 1999). In the context of violent relationships, it is not surprising that individuals report that the relationship is characterized by defensive, highly corrosive behaviors, similar to behaviors that are present in very distressed marriages. Specifically for psychologically aggressive behaviors, it is probable that the Four Horsemen negative communication patterns precede and occur in conjunction with psychologically aggressive behaviors. Given the apparent similarity of the Four Horsemen to psychologically aggressive behaviors (i.e., they both express hostility and contempt), it is likely that the negative communication designated under this category escalated into psychologically aggressive interactions (i.e., perpetration), and was used by physical and psychological victims upon receipt of aggression, withdrawing from the aggressive exchange. Unfortunately, these results suggest that, like in marital relationships, violent dating relationships are characterized by highly maladaptive interactional patterns.

A very interesting finding was that for both types of victimization, psychological and physical, Repair Attempts were significant predictors of classification. This suggests that victims of dating violence are reporting more attempts to fix negative relationship conflicts. While Repair Attempts are generally considered to be an adaptive communication process in marital relationships, it may be that these behaviors in this context are serving the function of soothing the partner, perhaps to reduce an already aggressive partner. These findings are particularly important in light of recent research that suggested that positivity in relationships was not always beneficial, and was sometimes associated with poorer marital outcomes (Baucom et al. 2006; Schilling et al. 2003). These data found that increases in women’s positive communication behavior, particularly in the absence of negative behavior, was associated with long-term marital distress. In the current context, repair attempts may be occurring to soothe a physically and psychologically aggressive partner. However, in the absence of addressing relationship issues, such as violent behavior, these communication patterns may not be helpful in preventing aggression in the relationship. It may be that in the context of violent relationships, repair attempts are present at higher rates and may not be an adaptive process for victims unless their aggressive partners possess the capabilities to use constructive, non-violent conflict resolution strategies too. This is consistent with some marital research, such as Schilling et al. (2003), who found that wives increases in positive communication was also related to self-reported avoidance of problem solving. The emphasis on positive communication, such as repair attempts, may inadvertently send a message that couples should be positive at all costs, including avoidance of important issues that should be addressed, such as violence. Additionally, in their reanalysis of previous data, Baucom et al. (2006) found that increases in positive female communication predicted increased subsequent distress. These data, in combination with the current findings, provide important information on the nuances of positive communication, and suggests that the ratio of positive to negative events is not the sole aspect of communication that matters; we also need to ensure that individuals are adequately confronting areas of relationship concern, including violence (Baucom et al. 2006).

Additionally, and consistent with research from the marital field (see Shorey and Cornelius 2009 for a review), relationship satisfaction was not a significant predictor of aggression in the logistic regressions, indicating that negative communication behaviors are more important in predicting aggression classification. Thus, although aggression and relationship satisfaction were correlated with each other in the expected direction, with the notable exception of physical aggression, it is likely that aggression produces reduced relationship satisfaction, and not the opposite. It is surprising that perpetrating physical aggression would not be associated with reduced relationship satisfaction. However, it is possible that, for some perpetrators, physical aggression serves a functional role in dating relationships, such as through gaining increased partner compliance and desired relationship outcomes. If this is the case, it stands to reason that this form of aggression would not be significantly associated with decreased satisfaction, as positive relationship behaviors may be an occasional outcome of aggression. However, future research is needed that examines the functional role of aggression in dating relationships to determine if this is indeed true.

In interpreting the above findings, one aspect of this research to consider is the stronger relationship between communication variables and psychological aggression than between communication variables and physical aggression. In particular, the strong relationship between negative communication and psychological aggression raises the argument that there may not be much conceptual and empirical difference between psychological aggression and negative communication. That is, many of the items that are commonly included in measures of psychological aggression (i.e., shouted or yelled at my partner) may also manifest in negative communication more generally, and specifically in Flooding, Harsh Start Up, and the Four Horsemen. However, there has been research to suggest that, although there are moderate, positive correlations between measures of negative communication and psychological aggression (Ro and Lawrence 2007), the CTS2 appears to be one of the best measures to reliably discriminate between psychological aggression and negative communication (Ro and Lawrence 2007). In addition, psychological aggression often includes behaviors that involve a pattern of coercion, domination, humiliation, and intimidation, which are not commonly captured in communication variables. Thus, although one should be cognizant of the similarities between certain forms of negative communication and psychological aggression, we believe that the data presented here on the relationship between negative communication and psychological aggression represent separate processes that influence each other.

Limitations and Future Directions

Although this research is important in identifying communication continuity between violent dating and marital relationships, it is not without limitations. Reports from one person at one point in time, rather than from both members of the dyad, is a significant limitation, and we should take caution in extrapolating information about the couple from one member of the dyad. However, it is our hope that this first, initial exploration of these communication constructs with dating individuals will serve as an impetus for future research. Additionally, this study is limited because the current sample of undergraduates was primarily female and of Caucasian, non-Hispanic decent. Therefore, these data may not be representative of populations of differing backgrounds, and future research is necessary to confirm how these factors manifest with more diverse samples. Additionally, the method of assessment was cross-sectional self-report, which has well-known limitations and weaknesses, and cannot provide an assessment of the longitudinal relationship between aggression and communication behaviors. Further, given the variability of participants in terms of length and level of commitment to the relationship, it is possible that with a different sample of participants with differing relationship histories the results may vary. Finally, a notable limitation of this study is the reliance on communication measures of limited reliability and validity. It is our hope that future research will further clarify the psychometric properties of these measures in order to encourage greater use in clinical research.

In order to address the limitations outlined above and advance this line of research, future research is needed to better clarify the role of these communication behaviors in violent dating relationships. Replication and extension of the current research would benefit from a larger sample and use of observational methodologies to assess communication behaviors in dyads, rather than assessing only one member of the dating dyad. Additionally, further research is necessary to examine communication factors that uniquely affect victims and perpetrators individually, in addition to those engaging in mutual violence. Given that research suggests that a significant proportion of individuals in relationships are both recipients and perpetrators of aggressive behavior (Bookwala et al. 1992; Cate et al. 1982; Gray and Foshee 1997), it may be that cases of mutual violence necessitate specialized attention and prevention program design. The current research did not allow for analysis of mutual violence compared to those engaging solely in perpetration or victimization since the rates of mutuality were very high, so this remains an area that needs to be examined in dating relationships.

As researchers continue to empirically examine facets of dating violence, it is our hope that the marital literature can provide a useful conceptual framework for communication behaviors, and that future research on communication in dating relationships better elucidates the unique behaviors occurring in these early relationships. This research provides an important first step in examining communication behaviors in violent dating relationships using a theoretical framework from the marital literature. As practitioners and researchers move toward a prevention model of addressing IPV by targeting dating relationships, it is increasingly important to understand the interactional patterns that are occurring in these relationships, both to assist with the current relationship and prevent a potential trajectory in later relationships. It is our hope that this line of research will inspire further inquiries into aspects of communication within dating relationships.

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010