Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The Precarious Couple Effect

By Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

(Part II of the series “When Not to Trust an Intuition of Compatibility”)

Research shows that certain types of couples don’t work very well together. Bill Swann at UT Austin and his colleagues have identified one such type of couple, whom they dub the “Precarious Couple.” Precarious couples are the specific combination of a quiet, verbally inhibited man with a verbally disinhibited but highly critical woman. These couples have been shown to have extremely poor relationship quality, in part because the man may feel like he can never get a word in, and the woman feels like he has no spine. Not exactly the recipe for creating that Warm Supportive Environment in which couples can talk about the differences that inevitably emerge in a relationship.

It would seem that these couples would be able to smell trouble from a hundred miles away. So why do these couples get involved in the first place?

Before we get to that, it’s important to know what the researchers mean when they talk about verbally “inhibited” versus “disinhibited” people. It turns out that people differ not only in how much they talk, but also in how much they “self-censor” before they talk. Verbally disinhibited people, for example, agree to questionnaire items such as “I speak my mind as soon as a thought enters my head,” and “If I have something to say, I don’t hesitate to say it.” Verbally inhibited people, by contrast, tend to use words much more sparingly, and agree with items like “It often takes me a while to figure out how to express myself,” and “If I disagree with someone, I tend to wait until later to say something.” When you combine verbal disinhibition with the tendency to criticize, well, you’ve got quite a bit of criticism coming your way.

Swann, Sellers, and McClarty (2006) investigated what draws the verbally inhibited to the verbally disinhibited. As it turns out, the very qualities that make for the couples’ later dissatisfaction— the precarious couple effect— actually work in favor of the couple during the early stages of the relationship.  In one study, the researchers had participants conduct “mini-interviews” of potential romantic partners over the telephone before a face-to-face meeting (the mini-interviews were done over the phone to cancel out any effects of physical attraction). After the interview, the participants indicated how much they liked their potential partner, as well as how nervous they were about interacting with them.  The results showed that verbally inhibited men tended to like verbally inhibited women more than verbally disinhibited women, but at the same time they felt calmer about meeting the verbally disinhibited woman. In other words, verbally inhibited men may be more prone to self-select into a relationship with verbally uninhibited women because they may feel that the woman can essentially “carry” the conversation on behalf of both of them, and help avoid those long, awkward silences during dates or cocktail parties. The women, the researchers suggest, may appreciate the men at the courtship stage as being “good listeners.”

A key point is that, since courting couples are less likely to express negativity towards each other or to face stressful situations (such as talking about family finances), the partners’ tendencies towards criticism is not likely to be visible yet.  Swann et al . (2006) addressed this issue in another study by having unacquainted partners discuss either a stressful or a non-stressful topic for 10 minutes. The couples then rated how satisfied they had been with the conversation. When the topic of discussion was not stressful, no differences emerged as a function of verbal inhibition. When the topic was stressful, however, the precarious couple effect emerged clearly: the most dissatisfied couples were the ones where the man was more inhibited than the woman, and the woman scored high on a measure of criticality.

Astute readers will have been asking this question from the start: what about pairings between a verbally inhibited woman and a verbally uninhibited man? Across a number of investigations, the researchers find that the precarious couple effect does not generalize to these pairings. The researchers suggest that, although we may not like to think so, gender roles and stereotypes affect our relationship satisfaction, with quiet men being at risk specifically for being labeled as “pushovers” and talkative, critical women being at risk for being labeled as “nagging.” As I explore in this post, the same behavior is evaluated differently depending on gender, such that quiet women and critical men are not just not seen negatively, but may even be viewed positively.

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Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved. Cross-posted from Psychology Today.