Marital Communication

Key Themes in Family Communication

Douglas L. Kelley, Marital Communication

Thomas J. Socha and Julie Yingling, Families Communicating with Children

Marital Communication

Douglas L. Kelley


Copyright & copy; Douglas L. Kelley 2012
The right of Douglas L. Kelley to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published in 2012 by Polity Press
Polity Press
65 Bridge Street
Cambridge CB2 1UR, UK
Polity Press
350 Main Street
Malden, MA 02148, USA
All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.
ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-8080-4
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
The publisher has used its best endeavours to ensure that the URLs for external websites referred to in this book are correct and active at the time of going to press. However, the publisher has no responsibility for the websites and can make no guarantee that a site will remain live or that the content is or will remain appropriate.
Every effort has been made to trace all copyright holders, but if any have been inadvertently overlooked the publisher will be pleased to include any necessary credits in any subsequent reprint or edition.
For further information on Polity, visit our website:


1   The Uniqueness of Marital Communication: Context, Mindlessness, Arousal
2   Living and Working Together: Effective Daily Interaction
3   Closeness: Achieving Intimacy and Love in Marriage
4   Close Conflict
5   Couple Communication across the Life Cycle
6   Destructive and Restorative Marital Processes
Author index
Subject index


Marital Communication is a labor of love. As you will find in Chapter 3, that means this book is the result of great commitment and emotional connection. But marital communication between couples is also a labor of love. Couples who marry typically begin with high hopes that the relationship will stay happy, close, and committed for the long term. Soon they find that daily communication, maintaining love and intimacy, and managing conflict become life-long negotiations. Some experience the dark side of marriage and, possibly, experience forgiveness and recon- ciliation. These experiences serve as the framework for Marital Communication.

Marital Communication synthesizes a large, interdisciplinary body of research that specifically focuses on communication in marriage. Some of the insights presented reflect my own research with married couples. Some come from my own counseling-related studies. The result is a book with a solid research foundation, presented in a manner to help researchers, practitioners, and couples think about “real” relationships.

It is important to note that while this book has focused on heterosexual marital communication, the principles offered may apply to a variety of relationship types. As noted in Chapter 1, I have tried to focus my review and thinking on long-term, publicly committed, romantic partners. Individuals interested in relation- ships that fit these criteria will find use in this book.

I want to thank several people for their extensive help with this project. Students of mine, Katie Chase, Carmen Goman, and Matt Nolan, helped research specific topics and gave editing advice. Thanks to the reviewers who provided early comments on chap- ters. In addition, the entire staff at Polity has been wonderful to work with. Specific thanks to Andrea, who was constantly positive and encouraging as she received frantic emails from me regarding various writing contingencies. I hope we can work together again.

Special thanks to Vince Waldron for a decade of research together. In the book, when you read, “My research …,” this often references work that Vince and I have done together. I am a better scholar than I might be because of Vince.

Finally, there is no way to fully thank my wife, Ann, for her con- stant support. It is a testimony to our love for one another, and the strength of our marriage, that she could be completely honest with me as she edited early drafts of each chapter. Thanks for walking with me on this journey.


Phoenix, AZ

May 2011



The Uniqueness of Marital Communication

Context, Mindlessness, Arousal

I think one of the big benefits is the joy of a special person who walks hand in hand with me and shares a lifetime of experiences. Someone that I know I can rely upon and trust. It’s the joy of a shared life together and knowing that I’ll be there for Diane and she will be there for me.

Jeremy, married to Diane for 45 years

Clearly, marriage is a significant relationship type in Western culture. As Jeremy describes, when characterized by constructive behaviors, marriage has numerous positive outcomes – someone to walk with, to touch, to rely on, to trust. On the other hand, when marriage fails, the consequences are potentially serious (Gottman, 1994). Most of you reading this book have been in a serious romantic relationship, are in a serious romantic relationship, or will be at some time in your life. Serious dating partners must choose to continue or terminate their relationship. The choice to continue the relationship generally results in the decision to maintain the status quo, move in together, or eventually marry. Even those who choose to live together with a romantic partner may view cohabitation as a step toward marriage and will eventually marry.

Historically, virtually all societies have had some form of marriage. Currently, most Western societies are experiencing evolving perspectives toward marriage and much debate regarding the constitution of marriage (e.g., legal partnerships, civil unions, same-sex marriage, and covenant marriage). Understanding the nature of marriage is further muddied in that many “nonmarriage” relationships that exist today may be considered marriage-type relationships; and, ironically, some of the legal marriages that exist today have little to do with how marriage is often viewed in modern, Western culture.

As such, I begin this chapter by identifying relational and social contexts of the marriage relationship, specifically as these contexts affect marital communication. Next, I look at the psychological and physical effects of these contexts on married partners. Finally, I examine two cognitive and physiological processes that, because of marriage’s unique relational characteristics, affect marital communication and couples’ ability to make productive change in their communication. Without an understanding of these key elements, the rest of the book is interesting “food for thought,” but lacks practicality in creating healthy marital relationships.

Box 1.1: Changing Ideas of Marriage

Kristin and Rob were engaged in the spring and planning their wedding for the fall. Part of the wedding discussion turned to whether or not they would sign a marriage license, making the union “legal” in the state of Arizona. As Christians, they both wanted to be married before God, but, disillusioned with the current divorce rate and certain marriages they had witnessed, they wanted the longevity of their marriage to be based on a daily choice to say “I love you,” rather than a legal bond. Certain family members were uncomfortable with omitting this legal step, but the question was resolved when Kristin’s mom, Hope, began losing her battle with cancer well before the planned wedding date. As Hope was beginning to rapidly decline, Rob’s mom, an ordained minister, asked if the couple were ready to marry. Kristin and Rob nodded, “Yes!” and they were married within the hour at Hope’s bedside, creating one of the last memories Hope would take with her as she passed from this life. Later that night, Kristin and Rob, who had not lived together before, went back to Rob’s place, now their “own home,” married in the eyes of God, but without marriage documents from the state.

Contexts and Effects

All communication takes place within a context. Two types of context play a significant role in shaping marital interaction. First, the couples’ relationship itself forms a unique context for communication. Second, the broader social context (e.g., parents/in-laws and children) influences the how and what of couples’ interaction. These unique relational contexts create a setting for the marital relationship that results in significant psychological and physical effects.

Marriage as a Unique Relational Context

As a researcher of interpersonal communication processes, I am primarily interested in the relational dynamics of marriage. Within this context I choose to define marriage as a relationship between long-term, publicly committed, romantic, partners. Each of these characteristics makes marriage a unique relational context. Let’s look at each of these four marriage characteristics in turn.


Perhaps most representative of the long-term aspect of marital relationships is the phrase commonly heard in marriage vows: ’til death do us part. This element of the marriage relationship creates a unique context for communication, because individuals respond differently in long-term relationships, or relationships that are intended to be long term, than in short-term encounters. For example, research on beginning romantic relationships shows that they are characterized by a variety of positive (e.g., warmth, anticipation, joy) and negative (e.g., anxiety, fear, envy) emotions. Other studies show that deception detection may be more difficult for those in long-term relationships (Knapp, 2006). Most specifically, long-term relationships are unique in their development of expectations, interaction history, and relational culture.

Expectations. Communication in long-term relationships is unique in that relationship partners form expectations for future interaction. My own research has demonstrated that married couples’ perceptions as to whether their relational expectations (e.g., intimacy and dominance) are fulfilled are strongly related to marital satisfaction (D. L. Kelley & Burgoon, 1991). Other research on role expectations (Jacob, Kornblith, Anderson, & Hartz, 1978), attributions and efficacy expectations (Fincham, Harold, & GanoPhilips, 2000), and standards (Wunderer & Schneewind, 2008) has demonstrated similar findings.

Weddings provide a clear example of expectations couples have for creating a positive, long-lasting relationship. Wedding vows commonly include statements of long-term commitment to one another (“’til death do us part”), through good times and bad (e.g., “in sickness and in health”). Marriage rituals, such as a ring exchange, symbolize the expectation of never-ending love (Chesser, 1980).

Expecting a relationship to be long term influences communication choices. Whereas in short-term relationships individuals can engage in strategies that achieve short-term goals with little regard for long-term relational consequences, long-term partners must consider the potential impact of their behavior on the partner and relationship over time. For example, studies indicate that individuals hold expectations for how long-term relationships should develop (Honeycutt, Cantrill, Kelly, & Lambkin, 1998). S. A. Lewis, Langan, and Hollander (1972) found that subjects were more likely to conform when making decisions if they believed there was the possibility of future interaction. Stamp’s (1999) interpersonal communication model acknowledges that individuals in long-term relationships alter their patterns of communication (e.g., for example, emotional expression) (Aune, Buller, & Aune, 1996). The emphasis here is that when individuals anticipate a long-term relationship, communication is modified to facilitate positive interaction and achieve interpersonal goals over the expected span of the relationship.

Interaction history. The flip side of managing behavior to ensure positive future interaction is recognizing that interaction history affects present communication. In other words, a husband and wife’s interaction when they come home after work is influenced, in part, by how they communicated in the morning before they went to work as well as the longer history of their interactions together. This historical influence is one of the elements that makes it difficult to understand how married partners assign meaning to particular behaviors in specific interactions. For example, a simple question, “Is dinner ready yet?” may provoke a negative response that is understandable only within the context of the relationship history. To address these issues, marriage researchers may use an insider objective perspective to conduct their research (Fitzpatrick, 1988; see Box 1.2). An example of this approach to research is to have couples view a video recording of their own interactions. Watching this recording gives couples a more objective understanding of their behavior rather than relying solely on memory of what they think happened. On the other hand, it gives the researcher the couple’s own perspective on what was happening during an actual interaction – something that researchers are seldom privy to.

Interaction history creates patterns of communication behaviors – habits, if you will. These “habits” may work to couples’ advantage or disadvantage as they develop constructive and destructive communication patterns. (I discuss this perspective further in the section on mindful and mindless communication.)

Relational culture. Related to interaction history is the development of subculture unique to each individual marriage relationship. Braithwaite and Baxter (1995), in their study of wedding vow renewal, argue that marriage vows serve to celebrate marriage as a “uniquely constructed culture of two” (p. 193). Functioning at their best, the patterns of behavior created by this couple culture provide for predictability and efficiency of interaction between the married partners. Functioning at their worst, these same patterns lead couples mindlessly into a web of conflict before they are fully aware of the potential negative effects on their interaction.

Box 1.2: Approaches to Marital Communication Research

Marital communication is studied using four basic research approaches (Fitzpatrick, 1988): insider subjective, insider objective, outsider subjective, and outsider objective.

Insider approaches are based on couples’ own perspectives. The insider subjective approach is used by many universities to conduct course evaluations each semester and is most familiar to students. Participants/students are asked to reflect on their experience and answer open-ended questions or rate their experience on scales (e.g., strongly disagree = 1, neutral = 3, strongly agree = 5).

The second approach is insider objective. As discussed in the text, this approach gives researchers the couples’ perspective (insider), but is somewhat more objective because couples are responding to a video or audio recording of their own behavior, rather than responding based on memory.

Outsider approaches don’t consider the couple’s perspective, but rely on outside observers. Outsider subjective approaches provide insights from outside sources such as counselors engaged in marital therapy. This approach is considered subjective because, typically, insights are not gained using a structured, reproducible system of observation.

Outsider objective approaches are characterized by judgments made by trained researchers observing couple behavior. For example, researchers may record physiological measures during couples’ conflict or may train coders to identify nonverbal behaviors while viewing video recordings of couple interaction.

Because of the difficulty of observing naturally occurring marital interaction, researchers use multiple approaches to give a more complete understanding of couple communication.

Relational culture also provides a means of interpreting and creating meaning within the relationship. Leeds-Hurwitz (2002), in her study of intercultural weddings, tells us that, “Each choice [in designing the wedding] makes the ideas and assumptions, thus the identities claimed by the new couple, evident to all who attend” (p. 28). Further, she states:

Weddings can appropriately be described as performance narratives, because each bride and groom is given an opportunity to create, and then display (perform) in public, their own story (narrative) of identity: Who they have come from, who they are now, and who they wish to be in the future. Like other types of stories people tell, weddings not only say what the tellers wish to be true, the telling itself actually makes the statements true, for it is through the display of identity that it becomes real… . (p. 129)

Publicly Committed

Marriage relationships are unique because of the partners’ public commitment to one another. Traditionally this commitment takes place during a formal marriage ceremony. The structure and composition of the wedding create a public sense of community, identity, and meaning (Leeds-Hurwitz, 2002). The ceremony may be short or long, include readings of poetry or sacred texts, and may feature special music. Ritual behaviors often associated with the wedding ceremony include setting the date, ring exchange, the kiss, lighting candles, use of flowers, and wearing a wedding gown (Chesser, 1980).

Public commitment is also demonstrated in that wedding licenses in the United States, to be legal, are to be signed by the two individuals getting married, the officiate, and one or two witnesses. Having someone witness the commitment between the two marriage partners is intended, in part, to validate the commitment and, thus, stabilize the relationship. The potential effect of public commitment has been one of the elements argued in favor of gay marriage (Shipman & Smart, 2007).

Other possible benefits of public commitment include a greater sense of security, greater follow-through on one’s commitment, and community investment in the relationship.


Marriage in contemporary Western culture is typically considered a romantic relationship. All of us know marriages where we think the romance has died (and, for some of us, we are certain our parents were never romantic in any way!), but in modern Western cultures marriage relationships typically evolve out of romantic dating relationships. Exceptions to this may include individuals who marry due to health or financial concerns or for immigrationrelated reasons. Even in cultures that have arranged marriage, the marriage relationship is one where certain aspects of a romantic relationship are expected to evolve, such as having sex or developing a common bond (Xiaohe & Whyte, 1990).

By romantic I am referring to aspects of a relationship related to sex or behaviors associated with potential movement toward a sexual relationship. For example, a kiss can be considered a romantic or non-romantic behavior. When Aunt Alice kisses you, it is not a romantic behavior. There is no possibility of eventual sexual interaction. However, when you kiss a romantic partner, the potential for the behavior to be sexually arousing is present. Even if you believe in waiting until marriage to have sex, kissing in the dating relationship is a behavior that is likely part of your sexual trajectory.

Understanding marriage as romantic affects interpersonal interaction in terms of expectations and behaviors. Psychologists report sexual problems as some of the most common complaints couples have (Notarius & Markman, 1993). Specific problems may include performance issues, frequency, and inability to communicate about sex.

These findings are important to communication scholars, who tend to view sex as a communication act. Expectations regarding sex and actual sexual behavior are typically related to intimacy development and maintenance within the relationship. This sets romantic relationships apart from other close committed relationships, such as “best friends.”


Understanding married individuals as married partners emphasizes the interdependence of the couple. Married partners share common goals. Working together to achieve these goals makes marriage a unique personal relationship. More than most other personal relationships, marriage partners negotiate and pursue both instrumental goals, such as maintaining a mortgage and raising children, and relational goals, such as the need for intimacy and personal affirmation.

The term “partner” also presumes notions of equality. If you are under the age of 40 and were raised in the United States, you most likely expect your marriage partner to be a close, if not best, friend. Close friendships are based on notions of equality. In short, understanding marriage as a relationship between partners emphasizes goal orientation and equality, both of which affect how married couples interact with one another and what they interact about.

The Social Context of Marital Interaction

All relationships exist within a social context, although researchers often neglect this aspect of couple life in favor of measuring individual and relational attributes (Schmeekle & Sprecher, 2004). Social context is especially important to marriage relationships. To return to our wedding example, couples who have a public wedding are making a commitment to one another within a specific social context. Typically this gathering includes family and friends, some of whom gain a new normative role status within the newly constituted marriage relationship. For example, parents, after the reciprocated I dos, become in-laws. If one or both partners bring children into the marriage union, parents also become grandparents, the children become stepchildren or stepsisters or stepbrothers. Additionally, friendship networks may merge, if they haven’t already, or may change entirely as the couple begins to spend more time with other married couples.

Children, whether a result of the current marriage union or brought into the marriage by one or both partners, create a new social context within which the married partners must learn to communicate. It is generally accepted that, when children are in the home, it is a stressful time for the marriage (Gottman & Notarius, 2002). The additional stress, as well as the physical presence of children in the home, may affect the style of the couples’ communication as well as their communication content. In terms of style, once couples have children, they may alter how they have conflict with one another or how freely they express intimacy. For instance, mere fatigue may lead to more arguments and less spontaneous intimate interaction. In addition, the birth of the first child cuts “couple time” in half (Huston & Holmes, 2004), and if there is difficulty with the child early on, couples either rally with collaborative partnership or the problems drive a wedge between the marital partners (McHale, Kavanaugh, & Berkman, 2003). These elements often make blending families difficult: for example, there is no childless married time for the new couple to establish basic patterns of communication. Braithwaite, McBride, and Schrodt (2003) found that couple interactions in stepfamilies are characteristically short, focused on the children, and most often via telephone.

Regarding communication content, parenting is often listed as one of the top issues over which couples have conflict. My interviews with married couples (see Waldron & Kelley, 2008) revealed differing parenting styles to be a common source of conflict. Additionally, the advent of the first child often brings with it a shift to more traditional division of labor, in spite of the fact that many expectant mothers expect household roles to be more egalitarian (Segrin & Flora, 2005).

In a review of literature examining social network influences on primary partnerships (e.g., marriage), Schmeeckle and Sprecher (2004) observe that network density (e.g., close-knit networks), network overlap, size of network, involvement with network, and network reactions all impact one’s relationship. For example, involvement with extended family is related to levels of relationship satisfaction and stability. The presence of in-laws creates new opportunities for support and stress (McGoldrick, Heiman, & Carter, 1993). Couples who have positive relationships with their parents may experience psychological, emotional, and financial support, as well as practical help. However, perceived obligations to parents/in-laws, such as time spent together, amount and quality of information shared, and social expectations (e.g., holiday celebrations), create unique possibilities for conflict between married partners. Additionally, couples who are financially dependent on one or both sets of parents may experience stress, particularly when one considers that financial stress is listed in the top three issues with which couples have conflict (Notarius & Markman, 1993). Relationships with other family members (e.g., siblings and grandparents) and friends may produce similar opportunities for support or stress (Schmeeckle & Sprecher, 2004).

Pal Effectssychological and Physic of Marriage

It has been well documented that healthy marriage relationships produce positive psychological and physiological benefits (Horwitz, White, & Howell-White, 1996; Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton, 2001, Waite & Gallagher, 2000). In general, these effects apply regardless of age, number of years married, or gender. Studies show that never-married persons report a higher prevalence of nonfatal diseases than do married persons (Pienta, Hayward, & Jenkins, 2000); young adults who get and stay married report higher levels of well-being than those who remain single (Horwitz, White, & Howell-White, 1996); mid-life couples who are not married rate themselves lower in health and higher in depressive symptoms than those who are married (McIlvane, Ajrouch, & Antonucci, 2007); and married couples moving toward retirement experience advantages compared to their non-married counterparts in terms of chronic diseases, impairment, functional problems, and disability (Pienta et al., 2000). While marriage clearly benefits partners’ health, it is possible that these benefits are limited over time. Pienta et al. (2000) found that, when comparing individuals married various lengths of time, health benefits were most pronounced for partners married 20–29 years.


Certain marriage benefits differ for husbands and wives: however, both experience marriage gains (Pienta et al., 2000; Umberson, Williams, Powers, Liu, & Needham, 2006). Studies have found that men who marry report less depression than those who do not and women who marry report fewer alcohol problems (Horwitz et al., 1996). While certain studies have found that men receive more social, emotional, and physical benefits from marriage (T. B. Anderson & McCulloch, 1993; Antonucci & Akiyama, 1987), others have argued that this effect is more a result of women’s extensive social support networks, rather than actual marriage benefits (Pienta et al., 2000). Consistent with this thinking, for men in better-adjusted marriages, frequent spousal-only interaction is associated with less heart disease, while women’s experience of less heart disease is more associated with total social interactions (interactions that include spouse and non-spouse) (Janicki, Kamarck, Shiffman, Sutton-Tyrrell, & Gwaltney, 2005). Similarly, Clements, Cordova, Markman, and Laurenceau (1997) found husbands’ marital satisfaction to be primarily associated with happiness in marriage (e.g., no regrets, agreement on affection and sex), while wives’ satisfaction was based on this “happiness” dimension, but also included happiness with how they interacted with other people (e.g., agreement as to proper behavior, in-law issues, friends).

Gender effects are also influenced by quality of marriage and divorce. While men’s health seems to benefit from being married, women’s health appears to be more related to the quality of the marriage. Women suffer most when the quality of the marriage is low (Janicki et al., 2005), but both men’s and women’s health decline with marital strain (Umberson et al., 2006). Other research indicates that marriage results in health benefits (lower levels of biological, lifestyle, and psychosocial risk factors) for women, but only when satisfaction is high (Gallo, Troxel, Matthews, & Kuller, 2003).

Explanatory Frameworks

Possible reasons for the positive effects of marriage can be understood in two broad categories: selection and protection (Pienta et al., 2000). Selection suggests that men and women select mates who are psychologically and physically well. From this perspective, the marriage health effects are largely a result of marriages consisting of healthy individuals. Protection refers to the marriage relationship serving to set appropriate boundaries for potential high-risk behavior (Sherbourne & Hays, 1990), and provide positive elements that protect against negative effects (e.g., depression). Positive elements include such things as increased financial security and conjugal support (Ducharme, 1994). Social support may include health-related social control (communication that involves influence, regulation, and constraint of health-oriented behavior), which has been related to partners’ health-enhancing behavioral responses (M. A. Lewis & Butterfield, 2007).

It is important to realize that positive elements may change over time as needs and challenges in the relationship change. For example, in their seven-year study of newly married couples, Horwitz et al. (1996) found that high marital quality was related to better mental health, while there was no effect for length of marriage, social support, economic well-being, and the presence of children. What seems certain is that, regardless of age and length of marriage, quality of the marriage relationship is key to positive psychological and physical health benefits.

Cognitive and Physiological Processes That Make Marital Interaction Unique

A common tendency when studying marital communication is to focus solely on behaviors exhibited by marital couples, with little attention to how context influences those behaviors. We have just discussed elements of relational and social contexts, along with their resulting physical effects. I finish this chapter by introducing you to two processes, one cognitive and one physiological, that contribute to making marital communication unique. Both processes – mindlessness and arousal – are present to some degree in all social interaction. However, these phenomena play a unique and particularly important role in long-term, marital relationships.

Mindful and Mindless Communication

Most people believe their lives are lived mindfully. They believe they are conscious of and purposeful in the actions they take each day (e.g., eating breakfast, driving to work, talking to their children). However, it may be more accurate that most of our human behavior is mindless (Langer, 1978, 1989). Motley (1992) addresses this issue regarding communication behavior, “In the interest of cognitive efficiency (though perhaps not necessarily in the interest of communication quality), most encoding decisions are made nonconsciously and automatically … except when unusual circumstances serve to make one or more of the decisions conscious” (p. 306). Mindless behavior plays a particularly important role in long-term relationships – like marriage – that are prone to develop patterns of behavior over time. Understanding the nature of mindlessness is particularly important to creating more mindful marital communication and changing unwanted communication patterns into effective, positive communication.

The Nature of Mindful and Mindless Communication

Scholars have debated the exact nature of mindful and mindless communication (Burgoon & Langer, 1995). While there are possible conscious states that exist between mindless and mindful extremes, for the purpose of the current discussion (to better understand marital communication), I have chosen to classify our cognitive states, and resulting behaviors, as either mindful or mindless.

Langer (1989) understands the key qualities of mindful awareness as: creation of new categories, openness to new information, and awareness of more than one perspective. In essence, mindfulness is attention and response to one’s environment based on current incoming information. As such, it involves active, fluid information-processing, the adaptation to context and multiple perspectives, and the ability to draw novel distinctions (Burgoon, Berger, & Waldron, 2000). Mindfulness is what most would commonly refer to as “thinking.” When mindful, there is a certain degree of awareness of one’s thought processes as one encounters the world and makes conscious choices to respond to the world.

Scholars long thought that this mindful model of the “thoughtful person” (Folkes, 1985) was the predominant way human beings operated in their environment. However, Langer and others have challenged this notion and argued that most human behavior is actually mindless: “Much of what we know and most of what we do – language, socialization, perception – happens unconsciously” (Kellermann, 1992, p. 293). Specific to communication, researchers have recognized that there is a “remarkable capacity for humans to disassociate thought and talk” (Burgoon et al., 2000, p. 105).

Mindlessness, in contrast to mindfulness, is based on past rather than present information (Burpee & Langer, 2005). Mindlessness is unconscious, automated behavior patterns often learned tacitly from past experience (Kellermann, 1992). Individuals develop patterns of behavior in response to their environment. These behavior patterns often appear mindful (Langer, Blank, & Chanowitz, 1978). Yet, mindless behavior is overlearned, stereotyped, automatic behavior (Bavelas & Coates, 1992) that can be performed without conscious thought; much like when you are listening to someone, nodding your head and looking straight at them, but are thinking about something else.

Responsibility If mindless behavior occurs without conscious choice, then are individuals free from responsibility for what they do mindlessly? I’m afraid not. To be free from responsibility, two conditions have to be present. First, it would have to be true that mindless behavior is without intent or purpose. Second, it would have to be equally true that mindless behaviors are uncontrollable.

Regarding mindlessness and intentionality, Kellermann (1992) argues that communication is mostly unconscious and automatic (mindless), yet very much intentional and strategic:

Despite communicative choices being intentional (i.e., not involuntary or uncontrollable), they need not, indeed most often are not, consciously made… . I reject wholeheartedly that purposeful behavior must occur within conscious awareness… . I am arguing that strategic behavior in general, and communicative behavior specifically, must be uncoupled from assumptions of conscious acquisition and use. I am arguing that communication, as strategic behavior, occurs primarily automatically. (p. 293)

At first glance, the idea that behavior, and specifically communication behavior, can be unconscious yet intentional may seem paradoxical. Nonetheless, examples of unconscious-intentional behavior are more commonplace than might be expected. Two common examples of intentional mindless behavior are driving a standard transmission car or the typing that I am doing now as I am writing. Did I think about writing w-r-i-t-i-n-g?1 No. Did I intend to write w-r-i-t-i-n-g? Yes. Driving to work today, did I think about shifting into third gear? No. Did I intend to shift into third gear? Yes.

Now let’s expand the example and make it more communicative. When a young man first kisses his girlfriend, does he think about it? Yes! Is it intentional? Yes! But, after five years of marriage, when he rolls over before going to sleep and kisses her goodnight as his wife, does he think about it? Perhaps not. It is performed automatically. (In fact, it may have become so habitual that it is often difficult to remember if the behavior was performed – “Did I already kiss you goodnight?”) But, does he intend it? Absolutely (or so we hope).

Uncontrollability, the second necessary condition to be released from responsibility for our communication, also is not present. Mindless communication behavior, though automatic and unconscious, is controllable because it can be brought into conscious awareness. For example, tone of voice is a communication channel that married partners use without much thought, unless one’s partner is offended by a particular tone. Armed with the knowledge that one’s spouse objects to a tone of voice, an individual can bring the questionable tone into conscious focus, and choose to work toward change. This represents a key difference between mindless behavior and subconscious behavior (or unconscious processes; Langer, 1989). We have direct, conscious access to our mindless behavior – once made aware of it. The subconscious is only accessible through dreams, therapy, hypnosis, and the like.

In sum, because mindless behavior can be understood to be intentional and changeable, married partners are responsible for their mindless actions. However, as I discuss later, it takes mindful choices to change resistant mindless patterns.

Potential Benefits of Mindlessness

Language used to describe mindlessness can give the impression that it is a negative phenomenon. For example, in the following statement by Burpee and Langer (2005), “[mindlessness] results in insensitivity to context and perspective” (p. 43), insensitivity could be misconstrued to mean that mindlessness is negative (insensitive) and has no place in marital interactions. However, the reality is that a major portion of our behavior is mindless – we are mindless beings. And, it is mindlessness that allows us to be mindful about the elements in any given situation on which we want to focus (Kellermann, 1992). Let me illustrate, first, with a non-communicative example.

Dad is dishing up dinner. His two-year-old daughter wants to take her plate to the table “all by myself!” After failing to convince her otherwise, Dad lets his precocious two-year-old take on the daunting task. She carefully takes the plate of food and does extremely well headed to the table – until she has to step over the vacuum cleaner cord. As soon as her mental focus shifts to stepping over the cord, her plate tips and her food quickly slides to the carpet.

This scenario demonstrates the need for mindless behavior. The complex tasks of balancing a plate and walking over a cord are too much mindful activity for the young girl. However, thankfully, mindlessness allows more mature individuals to balance the plate, without “thinking,” while shifting attention to stepping over the cord. In essence, certain aspects of any complex action, to be done well, must become mindless – that is, out of one’s awareness – to be performed well.

For those who play sports, you know this only too well. As soon as you begin “thinking” about your golf swing, or your batting stance, or your free-throw shot, it is difficult to perform well. Each of these activities is too complex to keep all of their various components in one’s consciousness. In fact, the words we use to describe athletes when they are performing well reflect our intuitive sense of mindlessness: “He’s a machine,” “She’s unconscious,” “He’s in the zone.” So, you can be mindful to keep your elbow up when you swing during batting practice, but once you’re in the game, your batting needs to be mindless as your attention shifts to other aspects, such as watching the pitcher’s delivery.

Each of the tasks described above is complex, but relatively simple when compared to language usage. Consider what speech would be like if you had to “think” about each of the various components of creating a sentence. For example, suppose you were able to be 100% mindful when asking your friend if she would like to go the store with you. Some of the things you would have to think about before you spoke would be: search your personal lexicon for the most effective words to use; filter those words for the ones that would make most sense to your friend whose first language is German; make certain that you have a subject and predicate in the sentence; make certain that adjectives come before the nouns they are modifying. Oh, and then you need to add in tone of voice, volume, inflection, and appropriate facial expressions. In other words, total mindfulness would paralyze us in our attempts to communicate with one another.

This simple example makes clear the need for the majority of our complex behavior to operate at a less than conscious level. The key for positive marital communication is not to try to eliminate mindlessness from our experience, but rather to use mindfulness to establish positive mindless patterns of behavior. Gottman (1994) suggests the need for overlearning so that positive marital interaction skills become less easily disrupted when the couple is highly aroused (see discussion below).

Potential Costs of Mindlessness

I hope it is clear at this point that in a world of myriad stimuli and complex responses, mindlessness is necessary for efficient functioning. And, yet, this fantastic capacity has a number of potential downsides. To begin, mindless responses are often difficult to distinguish from mindful behavior (Burgoon & Langer, 1995). As such, married partners may misinterpret one another’s mindless behavior. For example, Jan’s mindless reaction to withdraw during conflict may be misinterpreted by Pat as disinterest.

Another potential downside to mindlessness is that mindless behaviors are resistant to change. The fact that individuals are typically unaware when learning a mindless behavior (Kellermann, 1992) makes the behavior difficult to alter. As I discuss below, this may be particularly true for married couples who build substantial patterns of behavior over time. In addition, some mindless behavior patterns are learned at such an early age of development that changing those behaviors is especially difficult. For example, human infants begin to learn vocalization patterns in the first year of life, well before they learn to use language (Burgoon, Buller, & Woodall, 1989).

Finally, highly negatively aroused (e.g., fear, anger) individuals often turn to what is known best – overlearned (mindless) patterns of behavior (Gottman, 1994). Thus, when individuals perceive a high threat level (e.g., negative conflict with one’s spouse), the tendency is to rely on overlearned, mindless behavior. Instead of creative, mindful responses that provide the ability to adapt to new information, mindless responses often fall back on ineffective old habits.

Mindlessness in Marriage

Marriage relationships are particularly vulnerable to negative mindless behaviors because of the amount of time spent together and the routine duties couples perform. Mindlessness leads to patterns of response based on past behavior, rather than current, active, information, and may result in “insensitivity to context and perspective” (Burpee & Langer, 2005, p. 43). In other words, rather than spouses responding to what a partner is actually saying during conversation, they may “unthinkingly” react with an automatic response. Research has consistently demonstrated that unhappy married couples exhibit rigid patterns of behavior, specifically regarding reciprocity of negativity (Gottman, 1994) and demand–withdraw patterns (Caughlin & Vangelisti, 2000; Heavey, Christensen, & Malamuth, 1995). This rigidity may largely be the result of mindless responses to behavior. For example, Gottman’s (1994; 1999) work on couples’ ability to be “flooded” by one’s partner’s negative affect suggests the occurrence of mindless patterned responses, such as limited ability to process information well and tendency to rely on past patterns of behavior. These elements reflect the forementioned insensitivity to context and perception. The importance of this is demonstrated as mindlessness, when compared to similarity (another important relationship variable), plays a much stronger role in predicting marital satisfaction (Burpee & Langer, 2005). These ideas will be developed more fully in Chapter 4, but clearly couples need to understand that negative mindless patterns will undercut their attempts to work toward positive change in their relationship.

Understanding mindlessness is also important to marriage because it can help married partners better learn how to avoid blaming behavior, and instead work toward a model of responsible communication. Blaming behavior, often associated with defensive patterns of communication, can be exchanged for collaborative strategies based on an understanding of how to change well-ingrained, overlearned, non-productive patterns (see Chapter 4).

Finally, understanding mindlessness can help couples understand why change is often hard or slow. For example, a husband who tends to take flight in the face of conflict may find it difficult to change a lifetime of “fleeing” behaviors; however, his wife may exhibit greater patience, as he tries to change, because of her understanding of mindless processes.

Arousal and Mindlessness

Arousal is a physiological process that plays a significant role in making marriage communication unique. Arousal is a physiological state of activation; specifically, it is an alertness or orientation response (Burgoon, 1993; Burgoon, Kelley, Newton, & KeeleyDyreson, 1989). It plays a central role in such psychological processes as the flight or fight response (Gottman, 1993), and has been identified as a key component of various interpersonal communication theories (e.g., Andersen, 1985; Burgoon, 1983, 1993; Cappella & Greene, 1982; M. L. Patterson, 1976, 1982).

Although the relationship between arousal and task performance is complex, in general, moderate to moderately high levels of arousal are associated with high levels of performance (Gottman, 1994; Yerkes & Dodson, 1908). For example, athletes who are “up” for the game are typically at this level of arousal. When at moderate to moderately high levels, arousal, as a focusing agent, helps individuals screen out extraneous stimuli and focus on what is most pertinent in a current situation. However, when arousal reaches high levels, the individual moves into “hyper-focus” (e.g., constricted focal attention/consciousness; Berscheid, 1983). At this point one is unable to perceive, adapt, and respond to the environment in optimal ways because one’s focus has become too narrow for optimum processing. For example, an individual with high levels of public speaking anxiety experiences hyper-focus – that is, his conscious processing becomes primarily limited to his anxiety. As such, this state of restricted information processing often results in mindless behavior – that which is known and comfortable. Gottman (1994) comments on this process, specific to the marriage relationship: “This increased diffuse physiological arousal makes it unlikely that the couple will be able to process information very well, will have access to new learning, and more likely that they will rely on previously overlearned tactics …” (p. 412). Clearly, high levels of arousal work against productive communication when negative mindless patterns are engaged.

Besides Gottman’s approach that helps us understand arousal in couples’ communication patterns, Interdependence Theory, as described by Fitzpatrick (1988), recognizes the role of arousal when couples experience unexpected change in expected sequences of behavior. Berscheid (1983) posits that couples’ lives are intertwined into predictable patterns. When these patterns are disrupted, arousal is generated and labeled as either positive or negative. For example, couples often learn ways of telling stories together. After vacation, Susan and Brett build a pattern of telling their “vacation story.” If, on occasion, Susan tells some of Brett’s part, Brett is likely to experience increased negative arousal. On the other hand, if Brett is expecting to come home from work Friday night and watch videos and have pizza and, instead, Susan surprises him with two tickets to fly to San Diego, Brett is likely to experience increased positive arousal. As such, arousal has a significant impact as to how change is experienced and mindless or mindful behaviors are engaged.

Choosing to Be Mindful

We’ve determined that mindlessness has both positive and negative consequences, and that negative consequences may be most pronounced during times of high arousal when one’s ability to balance mindfulness and mindlessness is compromised. As such, married couples may seek to create a productive communication environment consisting of positive mindless patterns, moderate arousal levels, and increased mindfulnesss.