A number of years ago my husband and I were on a road trip together. It was just a couple of years into our marriage and we had no children at the time. As we often do, we decided to listen to a podcast for part of our trip. We came across a podcast exploring a study providing evidence that the “style” of arguing couples use is predictive of whether or not they will get divorced. We both immediately looked at the other with trepidation. Were we brave enough to listen to a podcast that could see into our marital future? Throwing caution to the wind we decided to listen in and find out whether we were maritally doomed by our argument style.
The three styles of conflict identified in the University of Michigan study were characterized as destructive, constructive and withdrawal. The study followed 373 couples for 16 years, 46% of whom had divorced by the final year of the study. According to Kira Birditt, one of the co-authors of the study, destructive strategies in arguing are yelling and screaming. Constructive strategies on the other hand are arguments in which each party calmly discusses the situation and seeks solutions. Finally, avoidance strategies include remaining quiet or leaving the argument entirely.
The study ultimately concluded that the couples that remained together were more likely to be engaged in conflicts in which they both used so-called “constructive” behaviors. No surprise there. On the other hand, couples that tended to use “destructive” behaviors in arguing were more likely to get a divorce. Again, probably not rocket science. Interestingly, the researchers also found that couples were more likely to get a divorce where one partner fought constructively, and the other partner tended to either withdraw emotionally or physically leave the argument. Ultimately, the researchers found that individual behaviors and patterns of behaviors between partners in the first year of marriage predicted higher divorce rates 16 years later.
What I took away from the podcast was that it is not the fact of arguing that can doom a marriage but how you argue. What also seemed to be important was how the argument ended. A resolution in which both parties felt heard but perhaps had to compromise was, of course, positive. Effective communication, rather than arguing over one another, ultimately seems to keep people together.
Arguing is ok. It is healthy even! According to Dr. Jennifer Samp at Psychology Today, research suggests the process of conflict and arguing facilitates talk and awareness of another’s perspective. Apparently arguing can be beneficial for both friendships and romantic relationships. Dr. Samp recommends several tips for successful arguing. The first is that conflict should not be seen as a threat but rather an event to help your relationship evolve and allow you to get to know your “sparring” partner better. She also recommends not to argue when emotionally charged but rather wait until each person is “available to understand” the other’s perspective. Third, we must be flexible and open to the possibility that changing our minds is acceptable rather than charging on towards some predetermined outcome. Finally, remember that friends and spouses are vulnerable, and we should take the time to appreciate their perspectives.
Early this morning I overheard a group of three discussing the recent presidential debate and the candidates themselves. It was clear based on their conversation they did not all politically agree. Yet the conversation remained civil and they were friendly when I left with my latte. As I walked to my car, it occurred to me the reason they were able to have this conversation in such a politically charged time is that they were employing the successful arguing techniques I heard about years ago! They each seemed open to listen to the other even if they were unwilling to change their own position. It was amazingly refreshing. I predict they stay friends.
This article was written by CFNLA CEO Kristi Gustavson and originally published in the Shreveport Times on October 6, 2020.
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