When "negative" behaviors are positive: a contextual analysis of the long-term effects of problem-solving behaviors on changes in relationship satisfaction

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2010 Apr;98(4):587-604. doi: 10.1037/a0017479.


How should partners discuss the problems that arise over the course of their intimate relationships? Prior studies have provided inconsistent answers to this question, with some suggesting that partners benefit by avoiding negative behaviors and others suggesting that partners benefit by engaging in negative behaviors. The 2 longitudinal studies of newlyweds described here reconcile these inconsistent findings by revealing that direct negative problem-solving behaviors interact with the severity of the problems couples face in their relationships to account for changes in relationship satisfaction. Whereas spouses' tendencies to blame, command, and reject their partners predicted steeper declines in their own marital satisfaction when exhibited in the context of relationships facing only minor problems, those same behaviors predicted more stable satisfaction in relationships facing more severe problems. Subsequent analyses revealed that changes in the severity of the problems themselves mediated these effects. By contrast, indirect negative communications were associated with stably lower levels of satisfaction regardless of problem severity. The current findings join others in highlighting the theoretical importance of accounting for the relational context when examining the implications of various interpersonal processes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect*
  • Communication
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Marriage / psychology
  • Personal Satisfaction*
  • Problem Solving*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Social Environment*
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult