Cannabis use may be associated with a tendency to think that communication within a romantic relationship is going well when actually a couple has fallen into toxic behavior patterns. The association comes following a laboratory-based study in which couples were invited to a fun day of engaging in conflict interactions so they could be recorded and their conversations watched back by researchers.
The rare research, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, is one of just a handful of studies to explore if and how cannabis use may influence the way couples relate to one another. It enlisted the help of 145 couples for the research, with each pair containing at least one partner who regularly used cannabis.
Friction came first, as each couple was asked to engage in a 10-minute discussion on a contentious topic that they both recognized as a source of conflict within the relationship. During the tense chat, researchers were able to keep tabs on physiological markers of stress including their heart and respiration rate using monitors.
Couples were then asked to switch tempo by engaging in a five-minute chat about something they both agreed on. Researchers then asked the couples how they felt the conversations had gone, how well they thought they had resolved any conflicts, and how satisfied they were with the relationship in general.
The footage was then reviewed by several people trained in the art of assessing conflict resolution and communication. They were on the lookout for telltale signs of avoidance, such as failure to acknowledge a disagreement, skirting around the issue or deflecting, and negative conflict behaviors such as criticizing or blaming the other person, or making demands.
A fresh set of trained assessors then reviewed how well each of the partners had been able to put any conflict behind them when switching up the conversation topic to something both parties agreed on. Bad signs here included failing to contribute any positive points about the relationship, while positive ones included elaborating on the other person’s point.
Scoring these behaviors showed a trend as cannabis users were found to be more likely to express criticism and demands, as well as using more avoidance tactics and being less able to adjust to the positive interaction. However, when these same people were asked how they thought the communication had gone, their responses completely went against the perceptions of the professionals.
“The assessments by the cannabis users were almost the exact opposite of what independent raters found,” said author Dr Jessica Salvatore, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, in a statement.
While it might seem like a damning indictment of the influence of cannabis on communication skills within a romantic relationship (and the laboratory-based findings may fall folly to the "real-world or the lab"-dilemma), Salvatore urges that they are less to do with blaming the drug and more about raising awareness of positive and negative means of conflict management and resolution in romantic relationships.
“It is important to note that this study’s findings do not mean that cannabis use is wholesale good or bad for relationships,” she said. “Rather, it gives insight into how couples can better navigate conflict and come to a resolution. When you don’t see problems, you can’t solve them.”