Don’t Be A Joy Thief. How Couples Fail To Communicate — And How To Do It Better.

We can’t change our communication patterns unless we know what they are.

James E. McGinley, PhD


Couple together by the water.
Photo by Kirill Palii on Unsplash.

The researcher Shelly Gable and her colleagues at the University of California at Los Angeles studied the communication patterns of couples and how these patterns impacted the health of their relationships. They summarized what they found in a research article, What Do You Do When Things Go Right? The Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Benefits of Sharing Positive Events (link).

They identified 4 communication patterns based on whether their behaviors were passive or active, constructive or destructive.

In an effort to make the communication patterns more understandable, they were recharacterized by Dr. Karen Reivich of the University of Pennsylvania as the following; the Conversation Killer, the Conversation Hijacker, the Joy Thief, and the Joy Multiplier.

Table presenting 4 conversation styles.
Image source is author.

Conversation Killer (passive constructive)

In this style a person provides quiet, understated support for their partner. We don’t outright disagree; we simply have a lukewarm acknowledgement and we do not become involved. This is the classic, “Oh, that’s nice” response.

We often provide distracted support to others. An example would be simply acknowledging what was being said without looking up from your cellphone. But we might also respond like this if we are tired or have something else on our mind.

Conversation Hijacker (passive destructive)

In this style a person might say something like, “Oh that is nice, but did you hear what happened to me?” They are not tuned into what the other person wants to say or share and tries to change the topic to something else or to something that is important to them.

The problem with this response style is that we often discount the other person, as a result they feel let down. Sometimes when people say something it honestly reminds us of something else…



James E. McGinley, PhD

James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor.