EMOTIONAL HEALTH
February 25, 2014

Partners in Conflict

When it comes to resolving conflicts in romantic relationships, one thing matters more than communication.

In personal relationships, we tend to think that communication matters above all — that if we’re “good” communicators, and talk instead of fight, we can avoid problems. But the truth, according to a new study, is that how we communicate matters less than we might think.

There are two prevailing theories about relationships. One says we should avoid negative communication — yelling, anger, or criticism — while the other says it’s a natural part of relationships.

Big conflicts were always followed by big resolutions.

Psychologist Keith Sanford wondered which approach was right, and especially, “How is it that a couple can have a big conflict and feel upset with each other, and then later proceed to a new point where the conflict is resolved and they feel happy with each other again?”

He asked over 700 married or cohabitating couples about their recent conflicts, whether they used negative communication, and how they felt after the conflict was resolved.

“What I found was that the results were different for people in satisfying relationships and people in unhappy relationships,” he said in a statement. “For people in satisfying relationships, negative communication was associated with having bigger conflicts, but this effect was entirely harmless because big conflicts were always followed by big resolutions. ”

In other words, it’s ok to yell a little, provided that you have a solid foundation — and know how to resolve your differences so that everyone feels better after.

“People in satisfying relationships resolved their conflicts regardless of whether they used negative communication or not,” said Sanford, a professor of psychology at Baylor University.

“In contrast, people in unhappy relationships tended to have big conflicts, and they tended to have trouble resolving their conflicts — and this was often true regardless of the type of communication they used.”

So the message is that communication isn’t perhaps what we should be focusing on to start: It’s making our relationships strong and satisfying in the first place. Nurturing the relationship and each other in good times appears to make the bad times less of an issue — even if they’re really bad.

It all boils down to a person's overall satisfaction with his or her relationship. Weathering the inevitable conflicts is less about communicating one's feelings and point of view than assumed.

“…[W]hen it comes to resolving conflicts, it appears that keeping a feeling of satisfaction alive in a relationship is more important than the type of communication you use,” says Sanford.

That may mean planning an evening or outing with your partner to re-establish what's working in your relationship when a fight ends.

The study is published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

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