Instant Messages Reveal Relationship Health

Humans have evolved to have committed social bonds for raising offspring. (Image credit: Stock.xchng.)

The words that flow from our fingers to loved ones could say more than we think. The more frequently women use the pronoun "I" in their instant messages (IM), the more satisfied they are with their partners, a new study finds.

The guys also reported higher satisfaction in couples where the gal used "I" a lot in IMs.

While past psychological studies have analyzed couples and their communication techniques in lab settings, the new study, published last month in the journal Personal Relationships, relied on real-life scenarios.

"Instant messages are a great way to get at how people communicate in the real world," said lead study researcher Richard Slatcher of UCLA.

Great, happy, love

Slatcher and his colleagues analyzed 10 days of instant-message conversations from nearly 70 U.S. couples who had been dating for about one and a half years and had an average age of 19. The couples also answered questions about relationship satisfaction. Six months later, the couples indicated whether they were still dating. After six months, about 60 percent of couples were still dating while the others had broken up.

The researchers read through the conversations, noting the context of the IM threads. Then, they used a linguistic word count program to analyze the conversations' pronouns and words with emotional content.

Among pronouns in IMs, couples used "I" nearly 20 times more frequently than "we." And of the emotion words, all couples were most likely to use positive words.

"We found that the extent to which people used positive emotion words like 'great,' 'happy,' 'love,' tended to be happier in their relationships and to stay in their relationships for a longer period of time," Slatcher said.

Women who IMed with lots of "I's" were 30 percent more likely to stay in their relationships compared with other women.

Signs of comfort

The "I"-laden instant messages could indicate women were talking about themselves and were comfortable doing so with their partners, Slatcher said.

"Women tend to be more emotionally expressive in general and tend to be more disclosing in general," Slatcher told LiveScience. "So this finding suggests that beyond women wanting to disclose more and disclosing more in their everyday life, that when they do disclose more in their relationships, they're happier in those relationships."

He added, "An alternative explanation might be that you are not so enmeshed in your relationship that you have lost yourself completely," Slatcher said.

"What's really unique about this study is the way in which it captures naturally occurring discourse and discourse that's not a response to a particular type of situation," said Denise Solomon, professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State University, referring to perhaps less telling lab studies set up to evaluate specific couple interactions.

"It's not these significant couple interactions that other research has focused on; it's really everyday talk," said Solomon, who was not involved in the research. "I thought that was a really important feature of the study."

Other findings included:

  • For women, the more they used so-called positive negations, such as "not happy," the less satisfied they and their partners were in the relationship.
  • The more men used positive sarcasm, such as "oh great," the less satisfied they were in their relationships and the more likely that relationship would split.
  • For both men and women, the use of negative emotions, such as "angry," wasn't related to their relationship satisfaction or stability.

Slatcher said the million-dollar question is whether using certain words when communicating with a partner leads to healthier relationships or that the most satisfied couples speak to each other, say, with certain pronouns and emotion words.

If couples could get a boost from changing how they speak to each other, "that's big news," Slatcher said, as the finding has implications for couples' therapy.

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Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.