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

Calm down, but don't withdraw, to ease conflicts, researchers find.

November 16, 2013, 5:40 PM

Nov. 17, 2013— -- 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.

There is, however, one problem with all these studies, as most of the researchers readily admit. It's a different world today than it was years ago when many of these projects began. The gender roles are less clearly defined, the breadwinner is not always the male anymore, and women are free to venture where no female would have gone even a couple of decades ago.

But interestingly, researchers at Ohio State University in Columbus found that one thing that is not likely to change over the decades is the level of conflict between the partners. These researchers followed nearly 1,000 couples over 20 years, beginning in 1980, and found surprisingly little change in the amount of conflict over that length of time.

That study, based on data collected during the Life Course survey at Penn State University, found a slight decrease in the amount of conflict in the final years of the project, but it was very small.

The researchers also found that couples who reported little conflict in their marriage were more likely to share decision making with their spouse, another critical factor in maintaining a healthy relationship. The researchers concluded that if both spouses think they have a say in decision making, they are more satisfied with the marriage and less likely to fight.

That research also touched briefly on an issue that is rarely discussed in this type of research. Partners who believed marriage is forever reported lower levels of conflict than those who weren't all that sure it was going to last. That suggests that attitude and expectations, particularly when entering the relationship, are extremely important.

"People who believe marriage should last forever may also believe fighting is just not worth it," psychologist Claire Kamp Dush said in releasing the study. "They may be more likely to just let disagreements go."

Incidentally, while the Berkeley researchers found that a conflict is ended most easily when the wife cools down, research from Penn State suggests that it's possible to cool down too much. The wife needs to stay engaged or the husband may ignore her ideas and run over her.

The answer, the Penn State team reported in 2003, may be testosterone.

Yup, the bad boy among sex hormones isn't necessarily all bad. In the first study to measure the level of testosterone, infamous for promoting aggression and assertiveness, in both the husband and wife, the researchers found that women with a higher level than average for women were more likely to take an active and supporting role in the marriage, even in resolving conflicts.

That was especially true when the wife had higher testosterone and the husband had lower than average for men.

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