Avoiding Conflict Easier As Couples Get Older

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

The longer a couple has been together, the better they get at learning how to avoid conflict with one another, according to a new study.

Researchers from San Francisco State University reported in the Journal of Marriage and Family that couples who had been married for longer tended to change the subject or divert attention from the conflict when “toxic” subjects emerged.

The team followed 127 middle-age or older long-term married couples across 13 years, checking in to see how they communicated about conflicts from housework to finances. They videotaped the couples’ 15-minute discussions, not solely focusing on the types of communication they used when talking about contentious topics.

The researchers looked at how couples might change in their use of a common and destructive types of communication known as the demand-withdraw pattern. They found while most aspects of demand-withdraw communication remained steady over the couple’s lifetime, both increased their tendency to demonstrate avoidance during conflict.

Typically, avoiding a conflict is thought to be damaging. However, the team said for older couples who have had years to voice their disagreements, this method could be a way to move the conservation away from areas that could be “toxic.”

“This is in line with age-related shifts in socio-emotional goals, wherein individuals tend toward less conflict and greater goal disengagement in later life stages,” said Sarah Holley, San Francisco State assistant professor of psychology who directs the University’s Relationships, Emotion and Health Lab.

She said as people age, they place less importance on arguments and seek more positive experiences, perhaps out of a sense of making the most out of their remaining years. The researchers suggest the age of the partners appears to be driving this communication shift.

“It may not be an either-or question,” Holley said. “It may be that both age and marital duration play a role in increased avoidance.”

The researchers focused on this specific set of communication behaviors because psychologists think the demand-withdraw pattern can be especially destructive for couples. If a husband withdraws in response to his wife’s demands to do the dishes, that withdrawal can lead to an escalation in the wife’s demands.

“This can lead to a polarization between the two partners which can be very difficult to resolve and can take a major toll on relationship satisfaction,” Holley said.

A study last year showed when one partner is angry with another, it may have less to do with the current situation and more to do with the overall happiness of the marriage.

Baylor University scientists found people were most likely to express anger, not in the moments where they felt most angry, but rather in the situations where there was an overall climate of anger in their relationship. They said if couples fall into this “climate of anger,” they tend to continue expressing anger regardless of how they actually feel.

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