From our physical health to work life, how satisfied we are in a relationship has to do with a variety of factors influencing our life circumstances. One of the most important characteristics of a healthy relationship is a couple’s ability to communicate or, according to a new study, to not.
Publishing their work in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers say there are times in certain relationships when ignoring – or “withdrawing” from – your spouse can create a better sense of satisfaction overall in lower-income couples.
"Consider this example: A wife requests that her husband ask for a raise at work. For a husband in a low-wage job with less job security, that is a risky proposition. By showing reluctance to ask for the raise [and thus withdrawing from her], he can preserve his self-esteem and lessen emphasis on the couple's vulnerable financial situation," said lead author Jaclyn M. Ross in a statement. "For a wealthier couple in the same situation, the wife may perceive that the husband is unwilling to make a sacrifice for his family and that can cause friction in the relationship."
While withdrawing can be beneficial to couples with less economic resources, it can actually hurt the satisfaction of wealthy ones.
"Even though it is easier for wealthier couples to access resources to address their relationship problems, it can also create higher expectations that partners will make accommodations for one another's demands and needs that underlie their problems," said co-author Thomas N. Bradbury. "But if those expectations are not met, rifts can occur in the relationship and exacerbate the existing problems."
In the past, most studies have focused on white, middle-class couples. This time, researchers wanted to see how socioeconomic status influenced responses in demand-withdraw communications across hundreds of couples over two experiments.
The first included 515 heterosexual couples who had at least one child or were expecting and had been married for an average of five years. Forty percent were at or below the poverty line. Over the course of 18 months, researchers visited their homes and asked the couple what they wanted to change in themselves and in the relationship. Affluent couples who experienced demand-withdraw interactions saw their relationship status go down overall, while lower-income couples not only maintained a stable relationship status quo, but also had their satisfaction decline when the husband did not withdraw.
For the second study, researchers visited the homes of 414 newlywed couples over 27 months and initiated the same conversation. They found disadvantaged couples were also more dissatisfied when husbands did not withdraw in the face of their wife’s demands.
Don’t go sloughing off your partner’s requests just yet; there are several limitations we have to address. First, the studies didn’t fully represent all couple-dynamics, including same-sex, older, and interracial couples. Secondly, it’s important to remember that couples will speak differently when a researcher isn’t present and, although their findings are statistically reliable, the authors write they “cannot make strong claims about their magnitude because traditional estimates of effect size do not apply.” Simply put, the reasoning behind their claims is just speculative at this point.