Revisiting “ill will versus poor skill”: Relationship dissatisfaction, intimate partner violence, and observed “communication skills deficits”

Richard E. Heyman, Amy M.Smith Slep, Jill Giresi, Katherine J.W. Baucom

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


For decades, researchers, interventionists, and the lay public have subscribed to the notion that couples low in relationship satisfaction and/or experiencing psychological, physical, or sexual intimate partner violence (IPV) have communication skills deficits. In contrast, experimental studies of communication have concluded that differences were more likely due to partners' “ill will than poor skill.” We revisited this debate by recruiting a fairly generalizable sample of couples (N = 291) via random-digit dialing and asking them to discuss two top conflict areas (“at your best” and “as you typically do”), thus measuring will—conscious inhibition of hostility and negative reciprocity and production of positivity (i.e., the “conflict triad”). The conflict triad was observed with the Rapid Marital Interaction Coding System, Second Generation. We found partial support for the hypotheses grounded in Finkel's I3 meta-model. Frequency of hostility was associated with a complicated satisfaction × IPV-extent × conversation type × gender interaction, indicating that couples' communication skills are multi-determined. Unhappier couples showed almost no change in positivity when at their best, whereas happier couples nearly doubled their positivity despite their considerably higher typical positivity mean. Negative reciprocity was associated with satisfaction and IPV-extent but not conversation type, implying that immediate instigation combined with risk factors overwhelms conscious inhibition. Intervention implications are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1233-1252
Number of pages20
JournalFamily Process
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2023


  • communication skills
  • couple communication
  • intimate partner violence
  • relationship satisfaction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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