Aside from those mythical unicorn couples who claim they never fight (no one actually believes them, right?), a disagreement here and there is normal…even healthy. But think back to the last time you and your significant other had a fight—were you thinking about possible ways to resolve the conflict and how you could understand your partner better? Or were you focusing on how upset, angry, and frustrated you were feeling in that moment? Researchers say that your answer may reveal something about your relationship.
A recent study looked at 71 unmarried heterosexual couples who had been together an average of three years. First, researchers had participants complete a survey about their relationship satisfaction and conflict issues in the relationship. Then, each person in the couple spoke to a researcher aloud while communicating about a topic of conflict with their partner (in a separate room) via a chat program. The couples had 10 minutes to talk about a point of conflict (everything from amount of time spent together and money to past dating relationships and alcohol use) and come to a resolution. You know, just a typical weekend night for the average couple!
The results of the study found that during discussion about relationship conflict, when one person thinks about making excuses or denying their role in the disagreement while the disagreement is going on, the other partner was likelier to be unhappy in the relationship. Those in unhappy relationships were also more likely to want to change the subject of discussion, to think more about how repetitive the discussion felt, to think about the power they or their partner had in the relationship, and to focus on emotions like anger and frustration—none of which is super beneficial to a relationship. Of course, keep in mind that these discussions happened over a computer, so the couples weren’t getting the face-to-face connection and facial expression feedback they’d normally get from a face-to-face interaction.
So is it the chicken or the egg? Are people who are unhappy with their relationships more likely to act that out when it comes to conflict, or does poorly handled conflict lead to people feeling unsatisfied and frustrated in their relationships? It’s hard to say which came first, though the researcher that headed up this study did say that people’s thoughts might actually affect their partner’s satisfaction with the relationship either because they voice those thoughts to their partner or send non-verbal clues as to how they’re feeling.
And one more interesting finding that came out of this study—unlike similar studies that found gender-related differences in how people handle relationship conflict, this study found only one: women were more likely than men to blame their partner during disagreement.
What do you think about when you’re in the midst of a relationship disagreement? Do you think occasional conflict helps or hurts a relationship?