Couples fight, but there may be more to the argument that goes beyond the specific situation that caused the dispute. A fight could be reflecting the state of the relationship between married partners.

While married partners can become angry with each other, the anger does not arise in the heat of the moment. Rather, the anger has built up over time and is a reflection of the larger context of the relationship itself, according to Keith Sanford, PhD, from Baylor University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Anger and disputes are like quicksand, according to the study. Over the course of the relationship, if things between partners break down and tensions increase, anger becomes the dominant emotion. At its worst, it can pull a partner into constantly expressing anger in the relationship regardless of the situation or emotional state.

For the study, 83 married couples were observed during a conflict. The couples agreed to be videotaped through a one-way mirror. Two areas of conflict, one chosen by the wife and the other chosen by the husband, were evaluated by researchers as well as the couples. The married partners rated their emotions as well as their partner’s emotions prior to and after each discussion.

The couples were pretty accurate in regards to emotional expression and recognizing the emotion of their partner while being able to tell the difference between emotions. Anger is easy to recognize and in a relationship and a partner can react to that anger but there may be more emotions at play which they neglect.

According to Dr. Sanford, sadness is a common companion to anger. A person may be sad because the marriage is not working but this underlying feeling gets neglected because anger is easy to recognize and respond to. The couples in the study used their familiarity with one-another to interpret sadness or disappointment in a specific situation but not in the overall context of the relationship.

Recognizing the larger context of a relationship and being able to distinguish more than the situation-specific emotion could improve the state of the relationship. Researchers note that in previous studies, sadness could bring partners together and strengthen the relationship. Expressing sadness could pull the married couple out of the angry rut the relationship fell in to.

The study was published in the Journal of Family Psychology.