The Pros and Cons of Listening to a Traumatic Experience

By Guest Author Tess Nelson

Two people talking, by alancleaver_2000It is common knowledge that people who have undergone a traumatic experience can heal emotionally by simply talking about it with someone else; everyone needs to vent.  However, while this process may be beneficial to the speaker, it can negatively impact the listener.

Lewis and Manusov looked at 82 reports of interactions between closely related persons (based on emotional ties and proximity, such as roommates, relatives, friends, and romantic partners). The end results indicated that the listener’s level of distress increased with the amount of responsibility felt and the time they spent listening.  However there are many varying factors that contribute to the listener’s level of distress that should also be considered, such as expectations by speakers, the level of distress the speaker is experiencing, the amount of support the listener can provide and what resources are available to the listener.  Another major influencing factor is the listener’s reluctance to listen; sometimes people just do not want to hear about it.  Nonetheless, the predominate deciding factor is the type of relationship between the listener and speaker. This relationship determines the level of responsibility the listener feels, what the speaker expects from the listener, and ultimately how each will feel when the conversation ends.

It is important that both persons leave the conversation with little or no distress. Ideally both would come out feeling better, but this is a difficult feat to achieve.  While generally the speaker may decrease their levels of distress, they may unknowingly distress the listener, especially if they have not undergone professional training.  If the listener can no longer offer support, they can only distance themselves emotionally.  The most common way to do so is to offer advice; however there is also a possibility that this too could have negative effects on the discloser, which in turn has a negative effect on the listener.  Thus it is at this point that the listener should encourage the speaker to talk to a counselor, support group, or other personal relationship.

Lewis, T., & Manusov, V. (2009). Listening to Another’s Distress in Everyday Relationships. Communication Quarterly, 57, 282-301.

Reading Between the Lines: What Our E-mails Say About Our Near and Far Relationships

By Guest Author Elizabeth Worlein

As a busy woman, a girlfriend in a long-distance relationship, and friend that is hard to reach by phone, I have wondered how my use of technology impacts my relationships. What does my use of e-mail say about my relationships with my friends, my romantic partner, and my family?

Johnson, Haigh, Becker, Craig, and Wigley attempt to answer this question in a recent study. Two hundred and twenty-six college students submitted their personal e-mail messages that they received in one week. The researchers examined how the e-mails maintained the students’ relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners. The researchers also examined how relationships were maintained between people that were geographically close, and those that were long-distance. Researchers observed five main behaviors people exhibited to maintain their relationships in the three types of relationships:


  • Openness (sharing your experience, feelings, etc.)
  • Social Networks (references to events, school, or other relationships)
  • Positivity (e.g. “Have a great day!”)
  • Assurances (e.g. “I love you.”)
  • Joint Activities (e.g. “See you Monday!”)


  • Openness
  • Social Networks
  • Positivity
  • Joint Activities
  • Miscellaneous (Sign-offs, emoticons, etc.)

Romantic Partners:

  • Assurances
  • Openness
  • Positivity
  • Social Networks
  • Referring to cards, letters, or calls

This study illustrates that through the use of e-mail, we can continue to maintain our relationships when we are not face-to-face. What we communicate over e-mail, such as assurances or positivity, is similar to what we use to maintain our relationships when we are face-to-face with the person. The results indicate that our interactions over e-mail are not very different if we are near to or far away from the person.

What does this study’s finding say about our relationships?  Perhaps what we are communicating illustrates what we value in that relationship. For example, we may maintain friendships and family relationships to talk about our everyday experiences. For our romantic partners, we seek to communicate the importance of our relationship through assurances and openness. From all of these relationships, we are seeking positivity and openness, among many other values. Nothing radical happening on e-mail compared to any other venue–just another venue upon which to share the human condition.

Johnson, A., Haigh, M., Becker, J., Craig, E., & Wigley, S. (2008). College Students’ Use of Relational Management Strategies in Email in Long-Distance and Geographically Close Relationships. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13, 381-404.

College Love: Uncertainty & Satisfaction in Long Distance Dating Relationships

By Guest Author Kasie Tanabe

Going on into my third year in a long distance dating relationship, I can attest to the important role of active of maintenance in keeping a fulfilling relationship. However, I was unaware of just how closely linked satisfaction is to communication strategies and their feelings on the relationship’s future.

Surveying 186 college students in long distance dating relationships (LDDRs), Maguire looked the following subjects:
• Certainty/uncertainty of reuniting in the same city – how this affected the overall relationship satisfaction
• Relationship-enhancing/distancing communicative coping strategies – which of the two are more helpful for people in LDDRs with an uncertain and certain future
• Convergent/divergent situations – how satisfaction differs for those in convergent (high probability of a favored outcome) and divergent (low probability of a favored outcome) situations, and what communicative coping strategies work best

Maguire’s results generally strengthened existing theories regarding certainty and its positive effects on maintenance and communicative coping strategies. However, people who were comfortable with their future prospects (whether it be certain or uncertain) showed greater overall relationship satisfaction. In addition, maintenance and relationship-enhancing coping strategies were more clearly associated with relationships of reduced uncertainty.

Therefore, it should not be assumed that uncertainty will always prove problematic for LDDRs. Uncertainty management theory (UMT) offers one perspective on this issue; it recognizes that not all uncertainty is negative. In some situations, certainty may be problematic, especially if the sure future involves an undesirable outcome. It is not true that if a couple is uncertain or moderately uncertain of reuniting, then they necessarily are unsatisfied and have more distress.

Miss You (from doug88888)Maintenance strategies say a lot about a relationship as well. A commitment to a future together brings about an increased amount of openness, cooperativeness, joint-problem solving, and assurances, as more importance is placed on maintaining the relationship in hopes of making it last. But no matter the case, as the study and I both suggest, keep withdrawal and verbal attacks to a minimum. No matter the certainty or satisfaction level, all participants felt these to be harmful and unhelpful coping strategies.

Finally, another important aspect of LDDRs is idealization. This occurs often, as idealized images may arise through restricted communication. One partner is allowed to see only what the other wants them to see; it is easier in LDDRs to leave out unfavorable information. This ultimately heightens satisfaction levels.

Maguire, K. (2007). “Will it ever end?”: A (re)examination of uncertainty in college student long-distance dating relationships. Communication Quarterly, 415-432.

One more piece of the puzzle connecting online and offline use and behaviors

As a person who does not have any children, I stand amazed at how many things parents have to worry about, and how impactful the behaviors that parents enact within the family can transfer to their children in a plethora of ways.

In a survey of 417 college students, Ledbdetter looked at the interrelationships between four main concepts:

  • conversation orientation–how open the climate of communication is, and how encouraged the family members feel to talk about a large range of topics
  • conformity orientation– how homogeneous the attitudes, values, and beliefs that the family maintains in its communication)
  • relationship maintenance behaviors-the actions the family members engage in to keep the relationship in existence, which he then parsed into online and offline behaviors
  • Friendship closeness

Using theories that describe how behavior modeling constitutes a primary factor in the socialization of how people communicate with others, his results provide further support for these notions. Strong conversation orientation predicted the use of both online and offline relational maintenance behaviors. Further, the use off offline relationship maintenance behaviors served as a mediating behavior between conversation orientation and friendship closeness (but interestingly online maintenance behaviors did not).

So, if interested in helping their children establish close friendships outside of the family, parents should strive to maintain a climate of open discussions with their children. Likewise, research has indicated that children in families with a high conformity orientation have trouble adjusting to major life changes such as college. Children developing and learning some intellectual flexibility is key, both in listening to information, but also in forming tactful messages to others.

Obviously, parents interested in never having their children leave their house should practice the conformity orientation.

On the technology front these findings provide support for research that myself and others have conducted that look at the impact of the medium, though my hunch is that over the next thirty or so years these effects will dissipate somewhat. Online relationships perform similarly to offline relationships if the online relationships have time to develop, and this could also explain why conformity relationships were found to be related to online maintenance behaviors but not offline behaviors; perhaps this lack flexibility is masked when one has a tighter control over the interaction. Online maintenance in concert with offline maintenance is strongly related to friendship closeness.

Ledbetter, A. M. (2009). Family communication patterns and relational maintenance behavior: Direct and mediated associations with friendship closeness. Human Communication Research, 35, 130-147.