Communication Currents

Asking for a Date: Does Your Partner's Behavior Matter?

August 1, 2008
Interpersonal Communication

Decades of research show that what people say and do in dating relationships determine whether those romances succeed or fail. Not surprisingly, effective communication is constructive, warm, and empathetic. But what factors predict effective communication within dating relationships? Does a partner's behavior shape the kinds of messages people craft? If so, how is a partner's behavior apparent in people's messages?

The Emotion-in-Relationships Model, a long-standing theory of emotion formulated by psychologist Ellen Berscheid, sheds light on these questions. The theory says that dating partners have the ability to interrupt each other's daily routines. Interruptions happen in one of two ways: A partner can interfere with an individual's ability to accomplish a goal (“Oh, no. You forgot to let the dog out!), or a partner can help an individual accomplish a goal (“You made dinner? Terrific!”).

According to the theory, relationships develop when individuals begin to integrate their partner into their everyday activities. Partners start to influence each other's routines, collaborate in accomplishing goals, and intertwine their behaviors (“Do you want to share a ride to work?”). Developing a romantic relationship requires both patience and practice, however, and people's first attempts at coordination are probably clumsy. Individuals are likely to experience interference from partners when a partner hinders them (“Can you please hurry? I'm going to be late to the office.”). Over time, individuals who continue to develop their romantic relationship should be able to curb their tendency for interference and escalate their capacity for facilitation with comments like “Thanks for keeping track of time so you could leave work right at 5 pm.”

Not surprisingly, previous investigations support the theory's central assumption that individuals who perceive interference from their partners experience negative emotion, and individuals who perceive facilitation from their partners experience positive emotion. A lingering mystery, however, is whether interference and facilitation from partners predict people's communication behavior in addition to their emotions.

A recent study by Leanne K. Knobloch and Bethany Schmelzer sought to apply the Emotion-in-Relationships Model to communication. They chose the communication act of asking for a date to examine interference and facilitation from partners. Date requests are common. People regularly attempt to persuade others to engage in leisure activities together. Yet, date requests are complex messages to formulate. Individuals making a date request have to juggle multiple goals and guard against multiple threats to their self-image. Most important, date requests are consequential, as people employ date requests to initiate, escalate, and maintain romantic relationships.

Participants in the study were 248 college students who were involved in a dating relationship. They began by completing an introductory questionnaire measuring their perceptions of interference from partners, facilitation from partners, and relationship satisfaction. Then, participants moved to a private conference room equipped with a telephone. They were asked to imagine that they were calling their dating partner with the goal of making plans, but their partner was not available to receive their call, so they had to leave a voice mail message. These date request messages were evaluated along several dimensions.

Findings were generally consistent with the predictions. Individuals experiencing interference from partners reported that making a date request was more threatening to their self image and to their relationship. In addition, their messages were less smooth and contained more speech errors. Alternately, people experiencing facilitation from partners crafted date requests that were less concerned about their own image, more polite, and more affectionate. All of the findings persisted after taking people's reports of relationship satisfaction into account.

Why are these results important? Three implications stand out in particular. First, people's ability to communicate effectively may be compromised when a dating partner interferes with their everyday goals. Individuals experiencing hindrance from partners appear to have trouble articulating date requests fluently. Second, individuals enjoying facilitation from partners appear to construct constructive and carefree messages. Third, at a more global level, these findings suggest that people's perceptions of a dating partner's behavior may carry over to micro features of language. Conventional wisdom says that individuals craft messages based on their own behavior, but the findings of this study imply that individuals also take their partner's behavior into account when formulating date requests.

About the author (s)

Leanne K. Knobloch

University of Illinois

Associate Professor