Avoidance orientation and the escalation of negative communication in intimate relationships

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2015 Aug;109(2):262-75. doi: 10.1037/pspi0000025. Epub 2015 Jun 22.


Avoidance goals heighten the salience of negative social experiences, and in intimate relationships such an orientation may contribute to communication difficulties and the perpetuation of avoidance. We therefore hypothesized that individuals with stronger avoidance goals would be particularly prone to engage in escalating levels of negative communication with their intimate partner, and we tested this prediction by conducting sequential analyses on videotaped observational data (28,470 observations) collected from 365 heterosexual couples engaging in a relationship-related conflict. While less avoidance-oriented spouses showed a decline in their likelihood of negative communication over the course of the 8-min conflict discussion, the likelihood that more avoidance-oriented spouses would display negative communication behaviors remained at a high level. The likelihood of negative communication even increased when avoidance-oriented spouses were confronted with negative communication behavior of their partners. The effects of avoidance orientation were independent of relationship satisfaction and neuroticism. These findings demonstrate that avoidance goals underlie individuals' heightened reactivity to the partner's negative behavior, while also clarifying 1 possible reason why some individuals engage in communication behaviors that may prove maladaptive to their relationship.

Publication types

  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Conflict, Psychological*
  • Female
  • Goals*
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Sexual Partners / psychology*
  • Spouses / psychology*
  • Verbal Behavior*
  • Young Adult