why do couples engage in disrespectful communication? an equity theory explanation

Disparaging, criticizing, emasculating, and dictating. These are all communicative behaviors that have the potential to seriously damage, harm, or even end romantic relationships. Although the severity of the negative impact that this kind of language can have on other human beings seems intuitive (Disrespecting your spouse is bad- Duh!) , many individuals continue to use these destructive communication strategies in heated, and even not-so-heated, interactions with their partners.

The question then becomes: Why do romantic partners engage in disrespectful interactions? 

Past research has attempted to explain the use of negative behaviors in romantic relationships, with many scholars (Buller & Burgoon, 1998; Dainton & Gross, 2008; Guerrero & Anderson, 1998; Metts, 1989) agreeing that some negative behaviors can serve the purpose of relational maintenance. For example, Dainton and Gross (2008) asked participants to “describe any negative behaviors that [they] have used for the sake of the relationship” (p. 182). A few negative strategies reported by participants to maintain their relationships included jealousy induction, infidelity, allowing control, and avoidance. Goodboy and his colleagues (2010) took a different approach to this topic and found that relationship quality was the predictor of negative behavior use, suggesting that individuals in poor relationships (i.e. those of low quality or satisfaction) might use negative behaviors to distance themselves from their partners instead of using negative behaviors to maintain the relationship.

In addition to low relationship quality, another possible explanation for why individuals are disrespectful towards their mates may lie in equity theory (Hatfield, Traupman, Sprecher, Utne, & Hay, 1985). Equity is concerned with the distribution of rewards and costs between people in a relationship. Basically, we try to obtain an equal balance of rewards and costs for both ourselves and our partners when in romantic relationships (Hatfield et al., 1985). Individuals who perceive experiencing the same amount of rewards and costs as their partners are said to be in equitable relationships, while those who experience more rewards relative to costs, when compared to their mates, are said to be overbenefitted and those who receive less rewards in relation to costs, when compared to their mates, are said to be underbenefitted (Adams, 1965; Hatfield et al., 1985; Walster, 1975). Furthermore, when individuals feel underbenefitted or overbenefited in their relationships, they experience distress (e.g., Hatfield et al., 1985; Walster, Bersheid, & Walster, 1973; Walster, Walster, & Berscheid, 1978), with underbenefitted partners typically experiencing more distress than overbenefitted since the underbenefitted do not experience as many rewards (Hatfield et al., 1985; Walster et al., 1973). This distress then has the potential to cause individuals to communicate disrespectfully towards one another either to (1) restore equity and maintain their relationship or (2) further distance themselves from their partners. Traditionally, equity theory would argue that the purpose (of both positive and negative behaviors in general) would be to restore equity (Sprecher & Schwartz, 1994), but as explained, Goodboy et al.’s (2010) research implies that this may not always be the case. 

Interesting, right? I thought so. In fact, I conducted a study last September to examine this causal relationship. I asked participants to report about the frequency of disrespectful communication behaviors  they received from their partners in the previous month. I also had them evaluate the equity in their relationship (the completed a survey that placed them in one of three relationships categories: overbenefitted, equitable, underbenefitted). And this is what I found:

1. Individuals in underbenefitted relationships (where they feel like they receive less rewards in relation to costs, when compared to their mates) reported receiving significantly more disrespectful communication from their partners than those in overbenefitted or equitable relationships. 

2. There was no difference between individuals in equitable and overbenefitted relationships. 

These findings are consistent with the previous research arguing that underbenefitted individuals experience more distress than overbenefitted or equitable individuals (Hatfield et al., 1985; Walster et al., 1973). It is still not completely clear, however, if disrespectful communication causes a person to feel underbenefitted or if feelings of overbenefittedness (by the underbenefitted person’s partner) causes a person to use more disrespectful communication towards the underbenefitted partner. Both explanations are plausible. Does the presence of disrespectful communication contribute to feelings of inequity or do overbenefitted individuals feel a sense of superiority that encourages or empowers them to speak disrespectfully towards a mate? What do you think? And since this is just one possible answer to the original question, what are some other reasons you think couples engage in disrespect?

  • Adams, J. (1965). Inequity in social exchange. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 267-299). New York: Academic Press.
  • Buller, D. B., & Burgoon, J. K. (1998). Emotional expression in the deception process. In P. A. Andersen & L. K. Guerrero (Eds.), Handbook of communication and emotion (pp. 381-402). New York: Academic.
  • Dainton, M., & Gross, J. (2008). The use of negative behaviors to maintain relationships. Communication Research Reports, 25, 179-191.
  • Goodboy, A. K., Myers, S. A., & Members of Investigating Communication. (2010). Relational quality indicators and love styles as predictors of negative relational maintenance behaviors in romantic relationships. Communication Reports, 23, 65-78.
  • Guerrero, L. K., & Andersen, P. A. (1998). Jealousy experience and expression in romantic relationships. In P.A. Andersen & L. K. Guerrero (Eds.), Handbook of communication and emotion: Theory, research, applications, and contexts (pp. 155-188). San Diego: Academic Press.
  • The Hatfield (1978) Global Measure of Equity. Reported in E. Hatfield, M.K. Utne, & J. Traupmann (1979). Equity theory and intimate relationships. In R. L. Burgess & T. L. Huston (Eds.), Social exchange in developing relationships (p.112). New York: Academic Press.
  • Hatfield, E. Traupman, J., Sprecher, S., Utne, M., & Hay, M. (1985). Equity in close relationships. In W. Ickes (Ed.), Compatible and incompatible relationships (pp. 91-117). New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Metts, S. (1989). An exploratory investigation of deception in close relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 6, 159-169.
  • Sprecher, S., & Schwartz, P. (1994). Equity and balance in the exchange of contributions in close relationships. In M. J. Lerner & G. Mikula (Eds.), Entitlement and the affectional bond: Justice in close relationships (pp. 11-41). New York: Plenum Press.
  • Walster, G. W. (1975). The Walster et al. (1973) equity formula: A correction. Representative Research in Social Psychology, 6, 65-67.
  • Walster (Hatfield), E., Berscheid, E., & Walster, G. W. (1973). New directions in equity research. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 25, 151-176.
  • Walster (Hatfield), E., Walster, G. W., & Berscheid, E. (1978). Equity: Theory and research. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

1 comment:

Val said...

Not sure why, one possible reason is that it's an easy way to vent, or get out frustrations without having to
face the actual problem or deal with what is actually bothering them.

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