An analysis of the association between topic avoidance and dissatisfaction: Comparing perceptual and interpersonal explanations

John P. Caughlin, Tamara D. Golish

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


There is consistent evidence that individuals tend to be dissatisfied with their relationships if they report that topics are frequently avoided in those relationships. The extant literature contains two plausible general explanations for such findings: perceptual processes (e.g., the perceptions that the relational partner avoids are unrelated to the partner's actual avoidance but adversely influence relational satisfaction) and interpersonal processes (e.g., one individual's topic avoidance diminishes the counter-part's satisfaction because the counterpart accurately detects that avoidance). The current study compared the utility of these two explanations with data gathered from two separate samples, one including 100 heterosexual dating couples and the other including 114 parent-child dyads. Findings indicated that both perceptual processes and interpersonal processes help account for the association between topic avoidance and dissatisfaction. For example, the interpersonal explanation was consistent with evidence that boyfriends, girlfriends, and parents (but not children) all had perceptions of their counterpart's topic avoidance that were more accurate than would be expected by chance, and that those perceptions of avoidance were, in turn, associated with dissatisfaction. Despite such evidence for interpersonal factors, the effect sizes associated with perceptual processes were, in general, significantly stronger than those associated with interpersonal processes. The relative salience of the perceptual processes has important practical implications, supporting theoretical arguments that there are likely circumstances when topic avoidance can help maintain a cohesive relationship.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)275-295
Number of pages21
JournalCommunication Monographs
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2002

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Language and Linguistics


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