All Couples Fight
If you spend enough time with anyone long enough, you’re bound to eventually disagree about something. Whether it’s what to eat for dinner tonight, which laundry detergent is better, or where to spend the holidays this year, couples don’t see eye to eye on everything. Nor should they! Some of the things you most love and enjoy about your partner may be the ways in which they are different from you. These differences likely sparked engaging conversation when you were first dating. While some similarities are the foundation of satisfying long-term relationships, unique differences in interests, hobbies, and experiences can help to keep relationships interesting and dynamic.
Alas, these differences can also be a source of conflict from time to time. What was endearing and quirky yesterday may be annoying (and just plain wrong!) today. And so while all couples experience conflict, it’s not all the same. What distinguishes one couple from another includes how often they fight, how they fight, and the things they fight about. And when it comes to relationship satisfaction and longevity over time, some of these things matter more than others.
Good News, Bad News
The good news: you’re going to argue with your spouse this year only as much as you did last year! The bad news: you’re going to argue with your spouse this year just as much as you did last year. It turns out that, at least in regard to how much you fight, marital conflict is fairly stable from year to year. So couples that fight a lot will continue to fight a lot. And couples that fight a little will continue to perplex the couples that fight a lot.
Couples in high-conflict marriages, about 23% in this 2011 study, are more likely to get divorced (though, 14% of these couples report high-conflict and high-satisfaction. Maybe they just really like the make-up sex?). But with a divorce rate of 34% in the United States, couples reporting medium (60%) and low (17%) levels of conflict are also susceptible to divorce, indicating it’s not just about how much you fight.
What Are We Fighting About Again?
Have you ever found yourself asking this question? Quietly, of course, in the back of your mind, while you maintain your firm stand in front of your dissenting spouse.
But seriously, what the heck are we fighting about?
Or, maybe you’ve experienced a disagreement that started in the kitchen about how to “properly” load the dishwasher and ended in the garage about how the collection of woodworking tools your spouse just “had to have” are now hosting an inch of dust. If this has ever happened to you, you may understand why it’s also not about what you fight about. The “what” of an argument (what us social scientists call “content”) is actually the least important factor when it comes to predicting relationship longevity.
Offense and Defense
So if it’s not how often we fight or what we fight about, what’s left? When it comes to conflict, it’s all about how you fight (what us social scientists call “process”). Our unique punches, jabs, dips, and blocks, our conflict “dance” – this is what may eventually make or break a couple. While high-conflict marriages may be more likely to result in divorce, the frequency of conflict indicates an underlying issue of poor communication and conflict resolution processes. Couples who fight more often, regardless of what they are fighting about, do so because they are never resolving the real issues in a way that allows them to move forward.
And, as we now know marital conflict remains stable over time, the same can be said for medium and low conflict couples. If you fight as much this year as you did last year, it’s likely because you are engaging the same process, the same dance of conflict resolution. Maybe you agree to disagree or curb the issue for now; maybe it’s “my way or you’re sleeping on the couch.” These processes are generally established early on in a relationship without any real warning or fan fare; they just become a part of how you interact as a couple. And because they are often so unconsciously ingrained, we’re not really aware of their role and impact on our relationship.
Fight Less Next Year
Couples who tend to exhibit more understanding, insight, and positive behaviors when managing conflict, as you might guess, report higher relationship satisfaction and lower rates of divorce. Woo hoo for them, you might say. But guess what? You can be them. While, yes, if you do nothing differently this year, you will fight with your spouse just as much next year, this doesn’t have to be the case. You could, you know, do something different. Shake it up. Do a new dance.
The best way to re-choreograph your conflicts? Practice. Positive communication and conflict resolution behaviors are hard! How am I supposed to just sit hear and “actively listen” to you when you’re so clearly wrong?! With practice, that’s how. Learning new communication skills can reorient you and your spouse’s mindset when approaching conflict, increasing all those protective factors I mentioned earlier (like understanding and insight) and decreasing the more damaging negative behaviors (like interrupting, steamrolling, or disengaging). The result? A less painful and more resolving dance.
Dating and premarital couples also have a unique opportunity to help “preprogram” this dance before it starts. By establishing positive and proactive communication, problem solving, emotional regulation, and conflict resolution skills from the outset, couples experience less distress, dissatisfaction, and divorce over the long term.
Not sure how to reset your conflict resolution? Contact me for practical tools and skills that offer real and lasting results.
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