Dear Miley, you’re doing it wrong. No, I’m obviously not referring to the music world, as you seem to have that figured out. I’m not even referring to the physical act of writhing around on a metal wrecking ball, although that does bring up some hygienic concerns. Rather, as a relationship scientist, I’m referring to your love life. The lyrics of your song, Wrecking Ball, have been rolling around my head since you released it last year. And now, after almost a full year of marriage, I think I know where you went wrong. The trouble lies in your demolition-style approach.
Let’s reflect back on what we know to be beneficial for relationships. Partners want to feel validated and supported. While “hitting hard” and “using force” to get what you want may work occasionally, it can ultimately undermine feelings of trust and respect. When people first begin dating, their outcomes are still independent. If they aren’t getting what they want they may be inclined to employ an ultimatum (e.g., “It’s my way or the highway.”). However, these power plays are less effective in more established relationships, because partners’ lives have become increasingly intertwined. In such cases, there is often not a clear winner or loser; rather, your victory is yoked to the defeat of someone that you love, and your happiness is tempered by that person’s discontent. Thus, if “all you wanted was to break your [partner’s] walls” it may be better to use a little less force and a little more finesse.
Communication researchers have investigated how people may craft messages that are more vs. less effective at getting what they want. They refer to these strategies as message design logics, and essentially examine how people frame requests and the amount of compliance they are able to gain.1 As it turns out, whether or not you get what you want may be the result of how you ask, more so than what you ask for. At the least-sophisticated end of the spectrum, you could use expressive design logic. This is a shoot-from-the-hip gut-level way of communicating that simply involves stating your thoughts and opinions (e.g., “I feel like you are being a butt-head right now!”). At the other end of the spectrum is the most sophisticated design logic, known as rhetorical. People who employ rhetorical strategies frame requests as opportunities to negotiate divergent goals and needs (e.g., “Why don’t we go do something fun and then come back to this topic a little later when we’ve had a chance to think about what would be best for our relationship.”). As you can imagine, rhetorical design logic tends to be more effective than expressive logic in a number of compliance-gaining situations.2
Here’s what I’ve learned from my first year of marriage. Almost every wife that I’ve talked to is a proponent of the rhetorical design logic (and this is consistent with reported gender differences showing that women produce more rhetorical messages than men).1 These women are capable of ingeniously crafting their communications in a manner that allows them to not only get what they want, but somehow also make it seem as if it were their husband’s idea! I haven’t yet mastered the art, but at a minimum, communication using rhetorical design logic requires self-constraint and inhibition. When in need of compliance, these women are able to forgo the immediate gratification of blurting out what they want and instead work to design a message that is well-timed, strategically presented, and in consideration of both partner’s competing goals.
Looking back at Miley’s situation, attempting to “break down walls” by “coming in like a wrecking ball” could be considered a form of expressive communication, which ultimately left her “crashing in a blazing fall.” In the future, she may have better luck using a more strategic and sophisticated approach that considers both her and her partner’s relationship goals. While this may not lend itself to as sexy a music video, it should allow both partners to be fulfilled without wrecking each other in the process.
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1O’Keefe, B. (1988). The logic of message design: Individual differences in reasoning about communication. Communication Monographs, 55, 80–103.
2Caughlin, J. P., Brashers, D. E., Ramey, M. E., Kosenko, K. A., Donovan-Kicken, E., & Bute, J. J. (2008). The message design logics of responses to HIV disclosures. Human Communication Research, 34, 655–684.
Dr. Sadie Leder – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Leder’s research focuses on how people balance their desires for closeness and protection against rejection, specifically during partner selection, goal negotiation within established romantic relationships, and the experience of romantic love, hurt feelings, and relationship rekindling.