Screaming and yelling at the top of your lungs, walking away angrily, and slamming the bedroom door shut are all too common fighting styles seen even in happy couples. In relationships, sadness, tension, or anger between you and your partner is inevitable, but communication is critical for a solution, even if it's negative. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, couples in satisfying relationships who have negative communication, are more likely to have bigger conflicts, but this is usually followed by bigger resolutions by both partners.
Disagreements are normal in relationships, and can even strengthen a relationship, if its resolved in a healthy manner. Feeling frustrated, misunderstood, and having a difference of opinions is natural in close relationships, so it’s reasonable that there may be an emotional combustion. Arguing, or fighting, allows for these stressors to be released, and in turn, leads to a solution. These fights can help set boundaries around these differences and let partners establish their own fighting style to effectively approach these conflicts.
Currently, there exists two opposing ideas on negative communication in conflicts: to avoid using it or to do so because it is a natural part of a productive interaction that leads to conflict resolution. However, Dr. Keith Sanford, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor's College of Arts & Sciences, believes neither theory is quite right. Sanford sought to examine why negative conflict engagement may sometimes predict increased resolution, and if this process could be mediated by relationship satisfaction.
Over 700 people in heterosexual marriages or cohabitational relationships were recruited for the study to observe how couples make progress toward conflict resolution in relationships. The participants were asked to complete an Internet questionnaire that included identifying a recent relationship conflict, and then answer questions about his or her use of negative communication, attributions, anger, and soft emotion. In addition, Sanford relied on the participants’ self-reported data of how they felt during the conflict, and how they currently feel about it. This was used as a measure of the progress the participants made toward the resolution.
The findings revealed the presence of negative communication in people in satisfying relationships and people in unhappy relationships differed. For couples in satisfying relationships, negative communication was associated with bigger conflicts, but these conflicts were generally followed by big resolutions. However, the participants in unhappy relationships tended to have big conflicts and trouble finding a resolution, regardless of the type of communication they used.
The findings highlight how a couple can have a big fight, feel upset, and then reach an agreement and feel happy with one another again. "A person's level of relationship satisfaction was, by and large, a much stronger predictor of progress toward conflict resolution," Sanford said in the news release. “However, when 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."
In a contrast study published in the journal Communication Monographies, researchers found people who are unhappy in their romantic relationship spend more time during a disagreement thinking about how angry and frustrated they are. However, in happy couples, when one partner has many emotional thoughts, the other has few and thinks about how to understand his or her partner and how to resolve the conflict. The findings suggest a couple’s thoughts during a fight reflect and shape their own relationship satisfaction, and they can even impact the level of happiness of their partner.
"We don't have data on what happens when partners change their thoughts, but our findings certainly do suggest that thinking about how angry and frustrated you are — or thinking about how much power is being wielded during a conflict — is not beneficial for the relationship," said Anita Vangelisti, lead author of the study and professor of communication at the University of Texas at Austin, according to Science Daily. The study touched upon the fact that men and women cognitions during a disagreement are in fact very similar rather than different. The only sex-based difference in thoughts was that women were found more likely than men to blame their partner in an argument.
While couples will normally have a spat or two, it is important to be honest with your partner and your relationship satisfaction in order to effectively reach a resolution.
K. Sanford. A latent change score model of conflict resolution in couples: Are negative behaviors bad, benign, or beneficial? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 2014.
Ebersole DS, Middleton AV, and Vangelisti AL. Couples' Online Cognitions during Conflict: Links between What Partners Think and their Relational Satisfaction. Communication Monographs. 2013.