To Make Your Marriage Last, Don't Fight About It

PHOTO: A married couple shout at each other.
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Marriage is forever, so they say. Then why do so many fail?

Psychologists and marriage counselors have pondered that question ever since the first couple said "I do," followed too soon by "I don't." There are obviously many reasons, but several research projects that have followed couples who have managed to stay married over decades are reaching similar conclusions.

Broadly speaking, they have found that there is too much conflict between the partners, and there are several reasons why it's so hard for two people who presumably love each other to stop fighting. Instead, disagreements fester, leaving open wounds in the relationship, which eventually dies.

A new study from the University of California at Berkeley and Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., finds that it's the wife who plays the terribly important role of calming down a conflict before it gets out of control.

"When it comes to managing negative emotion during conflict, wives really matter," Berkeley psychologist Lian Bloch, lead author of a study published in the journal Emotion, said in releasing the findings. It didn't seem to make much difference how long it took for the husband to calm down.

Block and fellow researchers have followed 80 couples for 25 years and have found that when the wife settles down, the conflict eases. That pattern led to happier, and more successful, relationships.

"When wives discuss problems and suggest solutions, it helps couples deal with conflicts," Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson, senior author of the study, noted. "Ironically, this may not work so well for husbands, whom wives often criticize for leaping into problem-solving mode too quickly."

Unfortunately, in many conflicts, one partner or the other backs away and refuses to even discuss the issues. That pattern is "particularly toxic," according to researchers at the University of Michigan, who interviewed 373 couples four times over a 16-year period.

"Spouses who deal with conflicts constructively may view their partners' habit of withdrawing as a lack of investment in the relationship rather than an attempt to cool down," researcher Kira Birditt said in releasing that study.

The numbers reflected in that study are not very encouraging. Although 29 percent of the husbands and 21 percent of the wives claimed they had no conflicts during their blissful first year of marriage, 46 percent of the couples had divorced by the 16th year of the study, even among those who reported no conflicts when newly wed.

Interestingly, that study also found that over the years, the wives grew less likely to withdraw, but the husbands' behavior didn't change.

Withdrawal also figures prominently in a 13-year study by researchers at San Francisco State University. Both husbands and wives tried harder to avoid conflict as they aged, simply changing the subject and withdrawing from the discussion.

Psychologist Sarah Holley said in releasing that study earlier this year that the research shows that as people age, they place less importance on disagreements and try to concentrate more on the affirmative.

That sounds good, but Holley noted that withdrawing from the conflict can lead to escalation in the demands of the partner, leading to a "self-perpetuating and polarizing" pattern in the relationship.

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